President Obama’s second inaugural speech, highly anticipated at a time of great partisan polarization, has entered history. And it is likely to be remembered more as a call to action for the president’s agenda than a call to national unity.
Still, Mr. Obama began his 15-minute address Monday with an emphasis on America’s founding document, the Constitution, and the collective strength it lends a nation that values its exceptional status in the world.
“America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention,” Obama said, addressing the crowded National Mall and TV viewers around the nation and world.
“My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together.”
But in a possible preview of the State of the Union address that the reelected and thus emboldened president will deliver on Feb. 12, Obama made pointed references to a second-term policy agenda that is sure to raise hackles among his political opponents. He issued a call to action on climate change, women’s rights, immigration, voting rights, gay rights, and gun control.
And he couched it all in the first three words of the US Constitution’s preamble, using “We the People” as a refrain.
“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,” Obama said.
In referring to Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall, the president was referring to seminal places in the fight for women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights. And he finished with a paean to a forebear of special significance to America’s first black president, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the slain civil rights leader for whom Jan. 21, 2013, is a federal holiday in honor of his birthday.
Immediately after Obama finished his address, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky issued a statement, congratulating the president on his second inauguration – and making a pitch for the agenda item that tops the Republicans’ wish list.
“The president’s second term represents a fresh start when it comes to dealing with the great challenges of our day; particularly, the transcendent challenge of unsustainable federal spending and debt,” Senator McConnell said. “Republicans are eager to work with the president on achieving this common goal, and we firmly believe that divided government provides the perfect opportunity to do so. Together, there is much we can achieve.”
In his speech, Obama did mention the deficit: “We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.”
But he did not utter the words “debt” or “spending,” even though three deadlines are fast approaching centered on the nation’s unsustainable fiscal path – the debt ceiling, the automatic spending cuts known as the “sequester,” and the end of temporary federal spending authority.
On Friday, House Republicans proposed raising the debt ceiling for three months, a move that would make the sequester deadline at the beginning of March the next big moment of partisan contention over federal spending.
But Obama made clear Monday that he is aiming big with his own priorities as he starts his second term. He didn’t just call for action on climate change, he went after those who question its causes or even its existence.
“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science,” he said, “but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”
The president also included rhetorical shout-outs to many of the constituencies that were critical to his reelection – women, gays and lesbians, and ethnic groups fighting hard for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally.
“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,” Obama said.
The call for full equality based on sexual orientation was a first for an inaugural address, and particularly noteworthy given Obama’s own change of public position in favor of same-sex marriage just last May.
Obama’s aggressive advocacy in his speech on controversial social issues seemed aimed more at rallying his base than at reaching across the aisle. But it was in keeping with the hyperpartisanship of the day, as he seeks to work around his foes in Congress by ginning up public opinion to effect change.
His veiled call for gun control, in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre that killed 20 small children last month, also came in stark contrast to his low-key approach to gun violence in his first term. But for Obama, it’s a new day. He will never face voters again, and he knows that second-term presidents have a limited window for action. So he is moving fast. Whether his Democratic allies in Congress, many of whom face reelection next year, are willing to move with him is another question.