Second inaugural addresses, we are told, are rarely of historical importance. But this time around, Barack Obama had his history voice on. Obama’s speeches are often delivered at low wattage, but when he speaks to posterity his voice rises a pitch or two, he talks more quickly, and the last syllables of his sentences sigh with echoes of a preacher’s cadence. While he usually finds that tone only at the end of his most impressive speeches—his 2008 Democratic National Convention and election acceptance speeches being the outstanding examples—here it was present from the very beginning.
This inaugural capped a series of speeches, starting at Osawatomie in December 2011 and continuing through the campaign, designed to end what the historian Sean Wilentz has called “the age of Reagan.” While the ascendancy of the Republican right since the 1980s has been mainly about the importance of guns, small government and God in policy terms, the free market revolution has also permeated the fabric of presidential rhetoric. Reagan’s economic advisers set about dismantling the New Deal, but his speechwriters broke apart postwar definitions of freedom itself.