Obama's inaugural speech defends entitlements, gay rights, combating 'climate change'
WASHINGTON — No doubt anymore where President Obama wants America, and history, to place him: As a tough-minded liberal.
Forget the cautious moderation that often marked his first term and frustrated his most liberal supporters. His second inaugural struck a resolute, even combative tone as Obama positioned himself as a 21st century champion of the disadvantaged, a modern-day heir to the Progressive Era.
The speech marked the culmination of a theme Obama started claiming more than a year ago with a speech in the same Kansas town where Theodore Roosevelt a century ago laid out his vision for a new nationalism of government as protector of the poor and working class against the rich and powerful.
Then, it was helping the people survive the sharp edges of the Industrial Revolution at the hands of what Roosevelt once called the “malefactors of great wealth.” On Monday, it was promising a government that would help people make it through an age of rapid social and economic change at the start of this new century.
For a middle class that's been losing ground for a decade, he promised new policies. For gays emerging from the shadows of society, he promised recognition and rights, the first president ever to use the word “gay” in an inaugural address. For immigrants who snuck into the country without documentation, he offered the promise of a new policy.
“We the people,” Obama said, “understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”
He challenged the country to set aside the politics of confrontation in search of progress toward great challenges. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” he said. “We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.”
He used the speech to forge a bond with the country, signaling that he speaks for and with the people, more than individual members of Congress. He used the phrase “we the people” five times. He used the word “we” more than 60 times.
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama vowed.
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall,” Obama declared, invoking touchstones of the drives for women's rights, civil rights and gay rights.
Whether the address will reverberate and translate into policy and better relations is questionable. While the rhetoric was more pointed than usual, Obama was using the address to achieve what second inaugural addresses traditionally aim to do: help craft the legacy and give his causes a boost.
Obama tried to mold that legacy with a reminder, in terms unusually vivid for an inaugural address, of how his political rainbow coalition must endure.
“It is now our generation's task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts,” he said. “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
But the occasionally defiant and often political tenor of his remarks could prove risky. Obama still has to face a Republican Party that controls the House of Representatives and has enough votes to block most Senate legislation.
And he starts his second term with no honeymoon period. Although Obama won re-election with 51.1 percent of the popular vote, his latest Gallup approval rating was 50 percent, meaning his coalition is intact but not growing. Large numbers of Americans remain uneasy about their economic futures.
Chances are Monday's address won't change Washington, at least not immediately.
Obama bet that by crafting an image as a dogged progressive, Republicans will know he's ready to fight. The Tea Party, death panels, more taxes, none of that scares me, he signaled. I'll be reasonable, he promised, but I'll be firm.
Whether he can maintain the tough-guy persona will be crucial to his presidency. Obama is the sixth lame duck elected since the 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951, imposed a two-term limit on presidents and instantly weakened them.
The lame ducks' terms often were defined by threats not on the Inauguration Day radar. Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed in 1957 “in our nation, work and wealth abound.” Seven months later, the economy tumbled into a recession. Bill Clinton faced impeachment, and George W. Bush's second administration confronted the worst recession since the 1930s.
“You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country's course,” Obama insisted. Strong stuff, but history often says otherwise.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Doctors push end-of-life care talks
- Indiana officials try to quell backlash over religious freedom law
- 2nd suicide in a month jolts Missouri GOP
- Music festivals say ‘no’ to fans’ selfie sticks
- Global warming is slowing down the circulation of the oceans — with potentially dire consequences
- Girl, 10, killed in Youngstown blaze was linked to rape case
- FBI agent, 2 others sentenced in contractor kickback scheme in Utah
- Federal agents charged with plundering online drug bazaar Silk Road
- U.S. parks cope with aging visitor base
- Defense mounted in Boston bombing
- A revolt is growing as more people refuse to pay back student loans