Barack Obama’s speech, like the campaign that led to his re-election, is likely to be important - either because he manages to live up to its promises, or because he doesn’t, writes rhetoric expert Mary E. Stuckey.
The president had an interesting opportunity, given the fact that the inauguration occurred on the federal holiday celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. He made excellent use of that opportunity, combing the two occasions into a seamless whole.
Like King in his most famous speech, Obama argued that the nation's founding documents, specifically the more radical Declaration of Independence, made promises up to which contemporary Americans must strive to live.
King referred to a "promissory note." Obama insisted, in one of the speech's repetitive themes, that "our journey is not complete." Obama united the founding, important national moments such as "Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall," and his own presidency. It was a selective version of national history, to be sure, but an affirming one nonetheless. And it placed his calls for further action both within an arc of historical inevitability and one of national optimism.
Job well done
Second Inaugurals do three things: they define the state of the national union, focusing on domestic matters and national identity; they offer a vision for the nation's role in the world, usually elaborating a version of American exceptionalism; and they articulate an understanding of how the president wants to be remembered as part of national history. Obama did all of these things, and in general, he did them very well.
Obama's vision of the national union is, articulated here and in most of his other speeches, one that is characterized by a powerful sense of mutual obligation.
He said, "For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America's prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own."
For Obama, the nation is united in its care for the weakest among us; it was a statement of the progressive philosophy his admirers long to hear from him.
He also presented a vision of the US' place in the world; it is one that, like his vision of the national union, is likely to please his supporters and aggravate his opponents. In stressing "the rule of law," and arguing that, "We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully - not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear … we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice - not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice."
Obama was also arguing, as presidents generally do, for a version of American Exceptionalism; but his was one that relied less on intervention and more on the nation's status as an international exemplar.
Clear signal to Republicans
Finally, he argued that his role in history as heir to and custodian of a trajectory of inclusion and equality gave him certain responsibilities, and in a note that is sure to worry his Republican opponents, he made it clear he intends to act on that responsibility:
"For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today's victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and 40 years, and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall."
This is a president who intends to act, one who claims he will be less likely to compromise, less likely to concede important elements of his agenda during policy and legislative debates, a president with whom Republicans will have to contend.
Too much detail
A weakness in his speech was a rather awkward emphasis on policy. Inaugurals in general tend to be about the principles that underpin policy rather than the policies themselves, and he went into too much detail on climate change, technology and so on.
Despite that, the overall speech was gracefully done, with echoes of Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He most obviously echoed Lincoln's second inaugural early in the speech, saying, "Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together."
And he brought FDR to mind in his insistence that "Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life's worst…But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action."
Both these presidents are often quoted, and are so easily included in the American pantheon that neither threatens the kind of overt partisanship inappropriate to unifying occasions such as inaugurals.
Obama's second inaugural address will likely be remembered for its mentions of gay rights and for his insistence that the journey is unfinished and possibly for his argument that our national principles endure but national policy must change to fit context.
Mary E. Stuckey is professor of communications and political science at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the author of nine books on presidential communication and rhetoric.