The Inaugural: Obama-licious

We are in the middle of the Age of Obama. What can we learn from the president's second inaugural address?

Pretty, but pretty pointless?
Dr. James Boys
On 23 January 2013 13:58

So, after taking the oath of office for a record fourth time in four years (and did you note he stumbled on his job title?) it would now appear churlish to suggest that this is anything other than the Age of Obama.

One-term presidents get mentions in history books; two term administrations warrant a chapter. So it will now be with Barack Obama. The Republicans may have sought to make him a one-term president, but if the best competition they could muster was Mitt Romney and a deeply divided party, then one must speculate as to how serious they were about this ambition.

Now that the 2012 election is over, what can be learnt from the president’s second inaugural address? Well for one thing, don’t underestimate Obama’s achievement. He may be the 44th president, but less than half got a second term. He’s only the second Democrat since FDR to do so (Clinton being the other) and one of only four presidents to do so since Eisenhower (along with Reagan, Clinton and W).

With his place in history galvanised by his triumph in November, Obama appeared emboldened at the inaugural ceremony and this was evidenced in his use of language and his overall tone. Often accused of doubting American Exceptionalism, Obama re-affirmed his belief in this quality early, outlining his own interpretation of what made America unique:

“What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Obama used language to invoke the great and the good from American political history: Jefferson, Lincoln, Clinton, Kennedy and King, sometimes quoting directly, other times making subtle rhetorical references to an expression or passage designed to invoke a memory or a sentiment associated with past glories.

There had been speculation that the president would announce a crack down following recent gun violence in the United States. One oblique reference to the second amendment came early with suggestions that its very contents were now anachronistic:

“The American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.”

Later, in case this point was missed, Obama mentioned Sandy Hook directly, an indication of more to come in the forthcoming State of the Union address, no doubt.

When Obama declared, “No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future. Or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores,” there was more than an echo of the “You didn’t build that” refrain, which Republicans should have done far more to exploit during the campaign.

The address championed a progressive cause that Obama had campaigned on in 2008, but which had not been heard in a very long time. This, perhaps, was the speech many were expecting on Inauguration Day four years ago, but one that only now he felt secure enough to deliver.

This was a speech that would have made Jed Bartlet proud; a bold, sweeping embrace of the power of government as a force for good in peoples’ lives. One can almost imagine Aaron Sorkin scribbling it down as Obama spoke! This was an idealised, liberal address that appeared to be somewhat disconnected from the political reality that Obama faces in his remaining time in office.

That reality, of course, is a divided Congress that has been unable to pass a budget since the Republican takeover of the House in 2009. For all of Obama’s sweeping rhetoric and grandiose phrases, he has been singularly unable to work with his political rivals to secure any meaningful legislation or to secure a working budget.

Instead, his sense of self-righteousness, and the weakness of the Republican Leadership, has ensured that the nation has lurched from one financial short-term fix to another, with little end in sight. Unable to pass a budget, how does Obama expect to enact any of the legislation that he referenced in his inaugural address, unless of course, it is solely by Executive Order?

The event is estimated to have cost anywhere between $170-300 million. What did that huge sum of money provide for, exactly? It allowed for the president to repeat an oath of office for the second time in 24 hours, deliver a partisan speech that was devoid of any attempt to connect to conservatives, and gave a platform to a series of singers that built to a climax with Beyonce.

Indeed, to many, she was top of the bill, not the president. The breaking news, that Beyonce mimed the National Anthem, is in fact a fitting metaphor for the whole event: pretty, but pretty pointless.

A final, fascinating moment came as the president was leaving the reviewing stand and turned to take in the panorama, the last time that he will do so before he is replaced in 2016. The next time he appears on the west front of the Capitol it will be to relinquish power.

It appeared apparent that Obama recognises that whilst his second term is only just beginning, his time in office is already on a countdown to its inevitable conclusion. This gives him much to do in a short period of time, in which power will begin to ebb away as eyes turn inevitably to his successor.

Dr. James D. Boys is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. He is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King's College London, Associate Professor of International Political Studies at Richmond University in London and a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @jamesdboys

blog comments powered by Disqus