Obama's Second Inaugural Address: What did his speech say about his second term?

Jan 21, 2013

What did you think about President Obama's second inaugural address? What will Obama's second term look like?

Robert Kaiser discussed these topics and more.

Did Obama write his own speech?

Welcome to an hour or so of discussion of Barack Obama's Second Inaugural Address. This basic question is a good place to begin, though I don't literally know the answer. Presidential speechwriting is now a team sport. Obama has good speechwriters who I'm sure played a role in this one. But Obama the student of history, looking now for his own place in the story of America, surely spent a great deal of time and effort on this speech.

I thought it was an eloquent statement of his credo, the same one we've been hearing since the speech to the Democratic Convention in Boston in 2004 that turned him into a national figure. I urge everyone to read the text of the speech, as I just did before beginning this chat. To me it reads better than it sounded on television. It's a helluva speech.

Commentators are now arguing about whether the President's speech was unapologetically partisan, or a plea for unity. How apoplectic do you think conservatives who listened got? Scalia? Boehner?

I'm not going to pretend that I can speak for Justice Scalia or Rep. Boehner. The latter, I'm sure, will be speaking for himself about the speech, if he hasn't already.

But I was struck that Obama was unapologetically liberal or progressive in this second inaugural. It was nothing like FDR's angrys second inaugural, which included a sharp denunciation of the wealthy classes that he blamed for the Great Depression, but Obama's speech was a strong defense of the liberal belief that America works best when it takes collective action to address its shortcomings and its problems.

At the same time he had one interesting paragraph that was clearly a nod in the direction of the right. Here it is:


Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone.  Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character."

Then he added:

"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. "

As a gay American I never thought I would live to see a president make a plea for equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans in an inaugural speech. Amazing to me, and thrilling.

Thanks for this. I'm sure there are many others who share your amazement and delight. The past year has marked an historic turning point iin the status of gay Americans, I think, with the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the dramatic changes in attitudes toward gay marriage, and now an Inaugural Address that mentions fairness to gay people, and cites as heroic the demonstrators of Stonewall, the New York bar where the assertion of gay rights began half a century ago. Quite remarakble.

Obama's speech today seemed tame and understated compared to some of his other public remarks. What might this portend for his second administration?

I wish you'd explained your view better, and cited the speeches you think were less tame, because I disagree with your assessment. I think what this speech portends is a second term in which Obama is going to pursue the goals he considers most important, without regard for their political saleability (if that's a word), at least initially.  His passage on climate change today was especially interesting to me. He expressed a quiet contempt for those who continue to try to deny the scientific evidence, and he seemed to promise to try to do something. That doesn't mean he will be able to, but I'm getting the impression that one of his decisions about the second term is to pursue what he thinks is important regardless of whether he can achieve his goals in these next four years.

Obama barely mentions it and didn't campaign on the topic. But he made it a keystone part of today's speech. Does that mean that a legislative push is around the bend?

See above. I have no information to share that isn't in the public domain already, but I agree with the implication of your question. It would be hard to include that passage in today's speech and then NOT offer specific legislation.

Awful lot of God talk in that speech for the so-called secular leader of our nation.

This has been going on for all of American history, no worse today than 240 years ago I don't think.

That's nice that Obama said that we're ending our foreign wars. But there are still soldiers abroad. Seems like just semantics to me.

America has troops and bases in many countries where they are not at war. We will continue to have a significant detachment in South Korea, for example, for as long as the North Korean regime survives, but hopefully, they will never be engaged in real warfare.

That has to be a first, right?

For sure

I think he talked directly to their behavior and criticized it rather roundly. Now that is a far cry from calling out individual people which you would never see in an inaugural address, but it is far from ignoring. I think this speech felt a little bit like a calling out in the context of the last few years, but even more of the last few months (especially about it taking hours to vote). But I also think it will wear extremely well. In 20 or 50 or 100 years, it will be a major civil rights address, but because of context, I'm not sure I can ignore the baiting that was definitely in there even though a lot of it was well justified.

Thanks for this. I hope it provokes more thoughtful comments from readers on the speech!

Who does Obama believe he answers to?

Dana Milbank would be my best guess. Yours?

Does the current political environment give President Obama much room to make a meaningful legislative impact?

Good question. I'm not sure we know yet what "the current political environment" is going to be a month or two or three from now. Something very big happened in Williamsburg last week when the House Republicans did a full gainer with flip and flop off the high board on the debt  ceiling.  Does this portend a changed atmosphere more broadly? I would not bet fifty cents on it, but I cannot confidently predict that the next two years are going to be like the last two, if only because it is obvious that at least some Republicans have grasped the seriousness of their situation in the country.

You've been observing presidents for a long time. Is the hatred directed at Obama substantially worse than that directed at other recent presidents?

I was thinking this morning as I walked to The Post from my house in Dupont Circle with many headed to the Inauguration all  around me that the first such event I saw first-hand was 64 years ago today, when I was five years old and Harry Truman was sworn in as president.  This is a very long time ago, but not quite long enough to claim first-hand knowledge of the presidency that provides the best answer to your question, Franklin D. Roosevelt's.  Iwas alive then, but confess I have no personal memorie of FDR.

But boy was he hated! One of my favorite FDR lines was, "the bankers hate me, and I welcome their hatred." He was tough and pugnacious, and, as as member of the WASP aristocracy himself, he had no qualms at all about attacking his wealthy opponents with abandon.

I think there has been a racial element to some of the Obama hatred that has made it unique, but I don't think its intensity is unprecedented.

How could he possibly say "peace in our time"? I fear that Santayana will proven correct, once again.

Peace doesn't feel imminent, does it?

This tells me you are receiving a lot of hateful comments about the speech and the man.

Actually, happily, that's not the case. Only one so far in that category, out of dozens. I meant that line as a compliment to the author of that comment, not a commentary on others.

I thought the speech reflected the weight of history that Obama feels so keenly. As a scholar he is well aware that his part of the whole American tapestry will ultimately be a small one, but he aims to make the next four years a more vivid depiction and defense of the America that elected him -- twice.

Interesting idea. Thanks for posting it.

As a progressive I think this will be the speech that we come back to time and again to say what we are all about. It was a great speech that brought in the broad topics and the specific events of today.

Thanks for this.

The crowd this time seems to have been considerably smaller than four years ago. Are you surprised?

Were you? Hard to recapture the excitement of last time. I've argued here before--on the day after the election, I think -- that for historians writing fifty years from now, Obama's second election may seem more significant than his first, because the first happened under incredibly favorable conditions for a Democrat, while the second followed four years of a lousy economy and great political frustrations. The first  confirmed that America wanted a big change; the second said that America wanted Obama. But the novelty of 2008 could not have been replicated this year.

Do you think Obama is a changed man from the time of his first inauguration?

I urge everyone to read this wonderful piece from our colleague David Maraniss, which was published in yesterday's Post.  And if you REALLY want to learn about Obama, also read his book: Barack Obama, The Story. It is terrific.

It hasn't been that long at all since Republicans were hustling to get anti-gay-marriage proposals on ballots because they were perceived as sure to win and a no-cost way to energize their base. But just in the last few years that feeling seems largely to have evaporated. Anti-gay ballot measures are no longer guaranteed to succeed. DADT was ended, with little outcry. And now Obama has invited an openly gay poet to read and has mentioned Stonewall in his address. Here's my question for you: Can you think of any other social issue where the momentum has switched so convincingly and so (apparently) suddenly as on this one? Can you draw any lessons or conclusions from this change?

Now THAT is a challenging question.

First let me agree with you. Our reporting suggested that the way Karl Rove and W won Ohio in 2004, providing their margin of victory over John Kerry, was by their exploitatioin of the gay marriage "issue" in the rural parts of the state, which turned out an unprecedented Republican vote that year.

I cannot think of another big issue of this kind on which opinion shifted so dramatically, so quickly. Slavery, a vote for women, prohibition, racial segregation--all of them only changed after years, decades.  The repeal of prohibition became popular pretty quickly during the late 1920s, I think (missed it myself), but that wasn't such an emotiional issue by then.

The hard part of your question is what this might mean.  I have been thinking, and arguing, for some time that we are living through a time of quite radical reinvention of American society. Dramatically improved tolerance for homosexuals is one manifestation of this; tolerance for inter-racial dating and marriage is another. But the biggest sign may be simple demographics: California is already a majority-minority state; more than half its residents are not white. This is a harbinger of the America to come. We are, once again, reinventing our country with new people and new values. We've done it again and again since 1776.

To my eye, the Tea Party and other manifestations of conservative opposition are signs of this as well. In a way I'd argue is pretty healthy, a lot of white Americans, especially, are showing us how anxious they are about the ways in which their country is changing.  They don't want this new America I'm talking about here. They liked older versions.

But they're gone forever, as today's big event reminded us again. We have a half-black, half-white president of the United States named Barack Hussein Obama.  How do you think your great grandparents would have reaced to that?

Oh, and by the way, he has just begun his second term.

Why thank you. I enjoy your commentary too. And I think it takes quite a bit of courage to take on a chat like this just minutes after the speech was over. I only had to come up with one idea. You have to deal with a lot more than that. One question: Are inaugural speeches the only ones that aren't released to the press before they are made? I'm sure I've heard that the planned text of most others are released at least a few hours in advance, though of course the actual speech could vary from the planned text a bit.

This is handled a lot like the State of the Uniion speech. It was released to the press just as Obama began to deliver it, or moments before. That's the SOU drill as well.

Thanks for your Q&A participation over the years. You bring a rich historical perspective, a keen D.C. eye and a gallant comportment befitting a gentleman. No higher praise for any man: a gentleman. Keep coming online for us - won't you?

This is too nice not to post, but I'm nervous about who its author might actually be. Whoever it is, please don't call me "sir."

The latest surveys show that 20% of Americans -- especially those under 30 -- are unreligious. Yet we were blatantly and repeatedly excluded from the inclusiveness of Obama's speech. I'm glad that others are now included, but what about us?

I think there has always been a large group of un- or non-religious Americans. Even some of the founders (Jefferson a good example) mouthed religious themes and words in public and in the founding documents, but didn't actually practice much religion themselves.  To me this is evidence that Americans have always wanted to put themselveson the side of heaven, so to speak, regardless of their private convictions.

How will this speech go down in the annals of Obama's presidential history?

High on the list of best speeches, I think. This morning I re-read his speech from four years ago. It was pretty weak, and quite astoundingly naive. He obviously still belileved then that the Lincoln parallel he so obviously loves might actually be accurate--that he might be able to pull a Lincoln, so to speak, and reunify a divided nation. Fat chance.

Today's speech tells me he has learned a lot, and also has come to terms with the despoiled political culture of our time. It was a much better speech in every way, I thought.

As the great Molly Ivins once observed, "It is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America." Today's speech was another great step in that struggle.

This time I know the author of a question! This is from
America's number one Molly Ivins fan, my brother Charles Kaiser--I'll bet. (I am guessing) Thanks, Chas!

Does inauguration converage get repetitive for you people at The Post? Isn't it pretty much the same every four years?

This is a good last question, because it gives me the chance to give you a link to the best piece of inauguration journalism I can remember. This story by my colleague Karen Tumulty ran in today's special inauguration section, and it proves that repetition is not our biggest problem. PLEASE read it.

And thanks, as always, to everyone who took part in this chat. We'll do it again!  Happy New Year.

In This Chat
Bob Kaiser
Robert G. Kaiser is Associate Editor of The Washington Post.
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