President Obama launched his second term with a surprisingly lengthy and bold to-do list, coupled with new recognition of the painful limits of power, politics and time.
At Obama’s inauguration four years ago, the moment was transcendent, the speech underwhelming. To read it now is to recall the frightening uncertainty of that moment — Obama spoke of “this winter of our hardship” — and wince at the blustery naivete of the new president’s proclamation of “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
The battle-scarred Obama of the second inaugural was simultaneously more realistic and more confident. He spoke like a man who, in the course of four long years, has developed a far sharper vision of the role of government: first, “that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action”; second, that “our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”
Indeed, Obama used the inaugural to continue the argument of the just-concluded campaign. “We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm,” he said. “The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great. “
Take that, Mitt Romney. More to the point, since Romney has become irrelevant, take that, Paul Ryan.
Obama ought to have toned down that section. At a moment of national unity, the victor doesn’t need to rehash and rebut the pet phrases of his vanquished opponents. But Obama’s words reflect a measure of his second-term willingness to assert a full-throated vision of active government. This was a speech that tilted decidedly to the left, far more so than four years ago.
Inaugural addresses tend toward the big picture, yet neither of Obama’s will be long-remembered for inspirational rhetoric. Instead, Obama chose, the second time around, the unusual and risky path of specificity. This speech set out a series of goals, everything from a revamped tax code to reformed schools to a more humane immigration system to dealing with climate change, against which Obama can be judged when he leaves office.
In an echo of Martin Luther King’s mountaintop, Obama spoke in terms of a journey that is “not complete” until women earn equal pay, “until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote,” until children — including in “the quiet lanes of Newtown,” his oblique reference to gun control — are “safe from harm.” Most strikingly, the president, who four years ago opposed same-sex marriage, announced, “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.”
There were dodges, of course. Obama asserted that the country “must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.” Then he followed up by implying those choices would not be so hard after all: “We reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”
Obama nicely finessed the disconnect between the transcend-partisan-bickering promise of four years ago and the ugly reality of his first term. “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time,” he said. “For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay.”
Least of all the president. His list is long. The clock is ticking.