The first reaction to the Second Inaugural
by Peter Watts
A President’s first term is all about getting a second term. A second term is all about legacy. Legacy starts with the Inaugural Address.
Bill Clinton speech-writer Jeff Shesol, writing in the New York Times, said: “The question for Obama now — not just in this speech but in the course it charts for his second term — is not what he will do to heal our divisions. It’s what he can achieve despite them.”
In his first Inaugural, the President plotted a course of seeking consensus with political rivals. That didn’t work out too well. In this address, the President indicated that he had learnt significant lessons from that experience.
Starting with words from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”, the President launched into a speech that reached beyond Washington and directly to the people of America. It wasn’t until 16 minutes into the speech that Obama first used the word “I”. Instead, there was a powerful and recurrent theme of “we”, “our”, and ‘your”.
From early on, he took the fight to the GOP and the Tea Party within Congress. Segueing from his Declaration of Independance opening, the President continued: “In 1776, we did not replace the tyrannies of a King for the privileges of the few or the rule of a mob”. This theme would recur with regularity in phrases such as his rejection of an economy where “a shrinking few do very well”, and “”We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or the few.”
Speaking of the US domestic environment, Obama spoke of building infrastructure, industry, and education. It was an agenda of renewing the nation. On foreign affairs, he stated how America will remain committed to supporting emerging democracies around the world. Towards the end of the speech he uttered words that have never before been heard on an Inauguration podium: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated equally under the law.”
The introduction to this civil rights section was one of the finest areas of the Address:
“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; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
Within this paragraph we see the most beautifully crafted, and brilliantly clever, series of transitions. Starting once again with “We the people” the speech moves to “forbears” and “the star that guides us”. So far, so traditional. This sounds like the President is about to move down the well trodden American path of pilgrims and pioneers. Look what comes next though. These pilgrims and pioneers aren’t wearing Puritan costumes or moving in wagon trains. These pioneers are respectively from Seneca Falls (Women’s Rights), Selma (Civil Rights), and Stonewall (Gay Rights). There is then the most beautiful transition to words of Martin Luther King, who is referred to as “a King”, counter-pointing magnificently against that tyrannical King of England that Obama mentioned earlier as a proxy for the GOP in Congress.
Now what is so beautiful is the way that these references will have immediately cued the supporters of these movements to sit forward and listen for what was coming next, while at the same time slipping directly past those that opposed them. The people at which this phrase is aimed are now tuned in, while for rivals, the next crescendoing paragraph would come like a sucker punch.
That section would be the one where the President, winding up like a pitcher about to take the major pitch of the game, made a full flow commitment to civil rights. It was a swipe at the forces that worked so hard to ensure Obama would be a “one term President”, a mission in which they failed.
There were many references to the constitution and the founding fathers. Within them Obama seemed to be pre-empting some of the fights that will occur during his second term, and in particular with certain members of the Supreme Court. For example, Second Amendment gun rights, which although not specifically mentioned, cannot be far from anyone’s mind this Inauguration Day. In this section, we heard a reference to Newtown, Connecticut, which so recently saw such tragic events. The President moved into another key theme, that of the need to take action now, and that while we must “be true to our founding documents”, we “cannot mistake absolutism for principle”
As Gavin McMahon at the Make A Powerful Point blog has pointed out in his work on Presenter Types, President Obama’s profile as a speaker is a “Counselor”: an accurate and highly organised speaker, but one who can fail to connect with their audience, or seem dry and clinical. For example, few Inaugural Addresses contain words as distinctly uninspiring as “statistics”, but the President’s first Inaugural Address did, and did so warmly. Throughout his first term, Obama was frequently criticised for lacking passion. Can the President change that? Today’s Inaugural Address showed every indication that indeed, yes he can.
While this was a speech with passion, energy, and courage, it was also a divisive speech. There was a lot for Democrats to cheer, and an equally large amount for Republicans to be appalled at.
President Obama is giving every indication that he has learnt the lessons of the past four years. The gloves are off. This time is all about change, and everybody is invited to be a part of that change, or get out of the way.
A transcript of the address can found on the NPR web-site
Come back tomorrow for a full analysis on some the hidden technical mechanics that have gone into this speech.