President Barack Obama left behind talk of healing partisan divisions to begin his second term with an unapologetic defense of the government’s role in promoting “a never-ending journey” toward equality for all, including the poor, women and gays.
He used his inaugural address to admonish Republicans, who have opposed most of his major initiatives in the last four years, and to declare before negotiations on the nation’s fiscal health that he’ll protect both entitlement programs and the federal spending that he says is an investment in the future.
Obama, who came to Washington straddling a promise of post-partisan conciliation and a commitment to progressive traditions, signaled a readiness to battle for an expansive agenda on issues from climate change to immigration. While that may cheer his supporters, it risks continuing the stalemate that has gripped the capital, including on the budget and taxes.
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” Obama, 51, said from the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
The speech was “a more combative address than is common at inaugural ceremonies,” said presidential historian H.W. Brands, one in which Obama “implicitly rebuked his political opponents.”
Obama offered a nod to Republican demands to slow the rise of the $16.4 trillion public debt, signaling to his fellow Democrats that “we must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.”
He elevated the cause of gay rights to the civil-rights struggles of blacks and women, the first time a president has supported their cause in an inaugural speech. He also argued against the nation’s concentration of wealth.
“We, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” the president said in a 15-minute speech that called for a central role for government in addressing the declining earning power of U.S. workers. “We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.”
Clark Judge, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, said Obama took a derisive approach similar to that of Franklin Roosevelt in his second inaugural speech. Judge described it as, “The era of big government is here, and here’s why -- and anyone who doesn’t agree with us is a creep.”
The ideas of collective responsibility, combating inequality and reversing middle-class economic decline have been running themes in Obama’s campaigns stretching back to a 2007 presidential announcement speech that included ending “stagnant wages” as one of his causes.
He invoked the principle that we are our brother’s keepers from the campaign stump and he portrayed his struggle with congressional Republicans as a “make-or-break moment for the middle class” in a December 2011 speech previewing his re-election campaign.
Obama’s call for the nation to rise up against partisan deadlock stood in contrast to his 2009 inaugural, in which he spoke of choosing “hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord” and proclaiming “an end to petty grievances.”
Still, the address fit a tradition of second-term presidents using the moment to put their administration’s work in the language of moral values anchored in U.S. history.
Abraham Lincoln in 1865 spoke of the “terrible war” he presided over as divine retribution for American slavery’s “250 years of unrequited toil.” Roosevelt in 1937 invoked the Constitutional Convention to portray the New Deal as “a new chapter in our book of self-government” that subordinated “private autocratic powers” to “the public’s government.”
Ronald Reagan in 1985 described his agenda of tax cuts and government deregulation as “a time to renew our faith” by striving toward “the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with an orderly society.” Bill Clinton in 1997 cast his time in office as a moment to “lift our eyes” to a new century. George W. Bush in 2005 declared “the best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”
Unlike Roosevelt, Reagan and Clinton, all of whom also arrived in office at moments of economic distress, Obama didn’t emphasize in his address yesterday the atmosphere of crisis when he first took office.
Instead, he stressed the value of aiding those in need. In a swipe at Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s comment that 47 percent of Americans see themselves as “victims” dependent on government, Obama said programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security “do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
Obama has presided over a nation recovering from the worst recession since the Great Depression. While the world’s largest economy grew at a 3.1 percent rate in the third quarter, this year will bring growth of just 2 percent, according to the median estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg.
Middle-class earning power has continued a four-decade-long decline during his presidency. Median household income in November was $51,310 -- $3,850 lower than when Obama took office in January 2009, according to an analysis of census data by Sentier Research, an economic-consulting firm in Annapolis, Maryland.
Clouding the economy’s future is the uncertainty over talks on raising the nation’s debt limit, looming automatic spending cuts and a debate over funding the government.
U.S. Treasury bond investors -- who most directly bear the risk of a government default -- haven’t been alarmed by the skirmishing between Obama and Republicans.
Yields on long-term U.S. debt are near record lows, with the benchmark 10-year note at 1.84 percent on Jan. 18. U.S. financial markets were closed yesterday for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
U.S. stocks also are climbing. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index hit a five-year high on Jan. 18 and was up 4.19 percent for the year.
The president didn’t just focus on economic issues. He highlighted support for causes dear to his political base, ranging from a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants to same-sex marriage.
“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,” he said.
Obama renewed a call for action on climate change in the face of those who deny “the overwhelming judgment of science.”
He repeated the refrain, “We, the people” from the preamble to the U.S. Constitution to convey the idea that he was giving voice to popular sentiment.
“This was a speech of a president who had four years of hard lessons in the roots of partisan division,” said Michael Waldman, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and now president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “I think what he was trying to do was make a strong argument for his philosophy.”
While foreign policy played a limited role in both of Obama’s inaugural addresses, the emphasis shifted.
In his first address, Obama told Muslim nations he would “seek a new way forward” and told leaders of hostile nations, including Iran, that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
In the second address, Obama traded those themes for an explanation to Americans of his winding down of the war in Afghanistan and plans to cut defense spending.
“Enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” he said. He said the U.S. will support democracy “from Asia to Africa,” seeking peace through opportunity, dignity and justice.
Brands said Obama’s treatment of war was a criticism of the Bush administration and that Obama’s “preference for spreading peace rather than war is the one he might be most likely to put into effect, as foreign policy is something a president can change largely on his own.”