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.
As the historian Daniel Rodgers has argued, Reagan’s speeches offered “a vision of freedom without obstacles or limits, a vocabulary of public words not abandoned but quietly individualized and privatised.” Reagan talked about individuals whose journeys exemplified patriotism, pointing to them in congressional balconies during state of the unions like no president had before. Freedom became singular rather than, as it had been since FDR, collective.
In his speech yesterday, Obama tried to put the country back together again, on Democratic terms. Relentlessly he underscored the word “together.” Nods to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King were to be expected given the dates being celebrated. But Obama spoke less than usual about what inaugural poet Richard Blanco neatly called “the ‘I have a dream’ we keep dreaming.” He used King to talk not of individual achievement or of race, but of collective need.
Obama even took the rhetorical property of the right and made it his own. Repeatedly in his public remarks, Reagan used the constitution’s opening triad, “we the people,” to put a wedge between a demonised government and the virtues of those who elected it. Obama structured his entire speech around the trope, reuniting citizens and government in his most liberal vision of the United States yet. He dismantled Reagan’s rhetorical wall between people and government by deftly showing that the oath he swore was “not so different from the pledge we all make to the flag that waves above.”
Obama’s talk of citizenship and togetherness is still too vague to mark a shift on the level of Reagan’s first inaugural. His language does not have the incision of Reagan or FDR, whose own second inaugural distinguished between personal individualism and public collectivism (“we all go up, or else we all go down, as one people”). Although Obama rode to reelection atop a new coalition of Americans that is younger, more racially diverse, and ultimately more liberal than any seen in generations (perhaps ever), it has not yet solidified. The president too is caught between his beliefs, continually attracted to post-partisanship and grand bargains but seemingly chafing to reassert the liberalism of the kind he displayed in the Senate. So far, he has been too equivocal in policy and language to usher in an age that bears his name, unable to stamp his authority on a new definition of government and freedom—even if he represents an America changing in social and demographic terms.
This was the ultimate problem with the inaugural address, for the shadow of Reagan got in the way of the turn to liberalism. Obama talked characteristically of acting in the knowledge that “our work will be imperfect.” Yet he also spoke, channeling Reagan himself, of an America whose “possibilities are endless.” Showing just how deep the Reagan revolution has run, Obama kept an unnecessary paragraph reasserting his “scepticism of central authority” and his disapproval of the “fiction” that “society’s ills can be cured through government alone.” Crucially, his language on social security and Medicare was defensive, speaking not with the liberal confidence (or hubris) of the 1960s reformers, but with the tepid words of the early 20th-century progressives.
The second inaugural, then, currently exists suspended, either to be lionised by historians or forgotten. Its best lines were either too professorial to be remembered easily (“while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing”), or aimed too squarely at Republicans (“we do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few”). It will live or die by Obama’s ability to construct not only a new electoral majority along the lines of FDR’s, but a new, progressive way of speaking in American politics. To begin the age of Obama, the president has to leave the words of Reagan behind.