On Monday, 21 January 2013, at noon, Barack Hussein Obama took the 35-word oath of office before a live crowd of well over 800,000 people and hundreds of millions more on television across the country and around the world. From the entertainment at the ceremony to the words of his second inaugural address, one message was abundantly clear: the country is for everyone – rich or poor, black, white or Hispanic, LGBT or straight – and the prime task for all Americans is to join together to tackle the challenges of a new century and an uncertain future. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
Symbolically, this inaugural event coincided with the national commemoration of Martin Luther King Day as well. The entertainment was just as clearly scripted to bring home this message of inclusivity, as James Taylor, Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce performed “America the Beautiful”, “My Country Tis of Thee” and “The Star Spangled Banner” respectively; and Richard Blanco, an avowedly gay Hispanic American poet, read his verse, “One Day”, expressively written for this occasion. About the performance of the country’s National Anthem, NBC News commented, “Beyonce did her Beyonce thing, belting out a rendition of the National Anthem that all future national anthems might just be measured against.” The master of ceremonies for the entire ceremony was New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer – a man crucial to the success of the president’s agenda in the Senate – especially on budgets and foreign policy.
Then Barack Obama, in his address, was in full rhetorical garb – drawing deeply from the textures of the words of his own favourite president, Abraham Lincoln, from the Declaration of Independence and the thoughts of Martin Luther King, and even from his own tropes reaching back to the 2004 Democratic convention speech that had first brought him to national attention.
By contrast to the extraordinary symbolism of his first inauguration as the country’s first African American (and bi-racial) president, this time around, ironically, it seemed perfectly normal to have him standing before the entire nation as its re-elected president. His speech was a quintessential American political address – squarely aimed at his fellow citizens, but watched by much of the rest of the world.
Starting with his basic thesis, Obama had declared, “Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colours of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional – what makes us American – 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, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”
Watch: Barack Obama’s 2013 Inauguration Speech
Getting into the main thrust of his argument, Obama said, “But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action…. 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. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.”
While the country has gone through great stresses in recent years, Obama went on to explain, “A decade of war is now ending. An economic recovery has begun. America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together.”
True to his long-time positions, Obama insisted the country could not succeed when only a few did well, arguing instead that prosperity required “the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.” In a nod to that famous Lincoln passage that “the dogmas of the quiet past are unequal to the stormy present” in his 1862 Message to Congress, Obama said on this day, “We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American.”
Moving beyond the challenges of the domestic environment, Obama spoke about the country’s relationships with the wider world, saying, “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war…. But we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.”
Even so, in obligatory nods to international political realities, Obama declared: “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation. We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalised, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.”
Winding up his second and final inaugural address, in words that echoed so many of his political forebears, Obama called upon his fellow citizens to “embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama gives his inaugural address after being sworn in at the presidential inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington January 21, 2013. REUTERS/Rob Carr
Following the speech and the national anthem, the presidential party went inside the Capitol Building for the traditional Congressional lunch, a gathering that even Eric Cantor, Republican House Majority Leader, told television commentators had had a warm, convivial feeling as Obama spoke warmly with attendees from both parties. Following the lunch, the motorcade left the Capitol as Obama and his wife walked much of the way down Pennsylvania Ave to the White House reviewing stand. From that vantage point, they watched the traditional parade featuring ceremonial military units, floats representing states like the president’s natal Hawaii, and, of course, dozens of bands from across the nation.
Of course the most commented-upon part of this inauguration may well have been Michelle Obama’s outfits and her new hairstyle – complete with stylish bangs across her forehead. Into the evening, there were also the two (very crowded) inaugural balls – complete with South African connections, like singer Lira entertaining the president and his wife, top officials and lucky holders of seriously hot tickets to these two parties.
Of course, rather eager to be out of Washington during this Democratic celebration, many Republican members of Congress and their supporters were at a gathering in Las Vegas – contemplating their future. Inevitably, the zeitgeist of their meeting has been, as commentators have it: “Republicans in retreat, at a retreat”. Time will tell, of course, how much of Obama’s upcoming legislative agenda will be adopted by Congress, whether he and Republicans can reach agreement on the federal budget, tax reform and the national debt, and how the US will confront its foreign policy conundrums – from the Sahel to the South China Sea.
While 21 January’s events were decidedly not an explicitly partisan moment, nevertheless, as The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote, “This was a speech that could only be given by someone who knew that he would never have to run for re-election again. (Compare Obama’s rhetoric today with the inaugural speech he gave in 2009; they are very different addresses.) This was Obama unbound. Distil Obama’s speech to a single sentence and that sentence is: ‘I’m the president, deal with it.’ ” Regardless of Cillizza’s judgement, Republican congressional leaders seemed at pains not to pick fights with the president and his agenda on this day. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell said, after the swearing-in, that the president’s second term represented “a fresh start when it comes to dealing with the great challenges of our day.”
Finally, on a rather personal note, this writer admits the inauguration made him feel very proud to be an American as he watched along with hundreds of other Americans who had gathered in a Johannesburg hotel to watch the event. Seeing the multitudes spread out across the Mall in Washington on the giant video screen, looking at the excitement palpable on so many faces, and listening to this vigorous restatement of some basic American principles, the angels of our collective better natures seemed very tangible, very close and very real, at least for this one day in January. DM
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Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama walk and wave after emerging from the presidential limousine during the inaugural parade from the Capitol to the White House in Washington, January 21, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing
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