President Obama’s second inaugural address wasn’t eloquent, but it was effective.
As oratory, it made one false step after another, the result of straining for presidential orotundity. “For we, the people,” he said, for example, “understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” A “shrinking few” makes it sound as if they are declining, or perhaps shy, and a “growing many” as if they are prospering — the opposite of his intention. The words are supposed to reinforce the argument.
And when discussing foreign policy, even speechwriters as young as Obama’s ought to know to avoid Neville Chamberlain’s notorious phrase, “peace in our time.”
Politically, however, the speech drove home its message: that President Obama stands in the tradition of Jefferson and Lincoln, and that those who oppose the Obama administration must also oppose the principles of Jefferson and Lincoln, and are therefore outside the pale of American democracy.
Tactically, the speech was a riposte to the Tea Party, which in its correct but haphazard way had tried to associate the American Revolution with opposition to Obama. Strategically, the second inaugural continued Obama’s effort, announced as early as 2006, to reverse the Reagan Revolution, delegitimize the conservative movement, and restore the Democrats as the majority party and liberalism as America’s official faith.
Obama strives, in short, to do to the Republican party what Jefferson did to the Federalists, Lincoln did to the Democrats of his day, and, above all, Franklin Roosevelt did to the GOP in the 1930s: cast the formerly dominant party into the outer, undemocratic darkness. FDR’s demonization of the Republicans reached its ruthless culmination in his reelection campaign of 1936. Having blasted them as “the party of Toryism” four years before, he elaborated on their treason the second time around, denouncing Republican leaders (though not their misguided followers) as “the privileged princes of . . . new economic dynasties, thirsting for power,” who were eager to create “a new despotism” built upon “concentration of control over material things.”
Throughout the campaign, Roosevelt pressed his party’s identification with the patriots of 1776. He ordered that the Democratic platform be written as a loose imitation of the Declaration of Independence, beginning and ending with paragraphs proclaiming, “We hold this truth to be self-evident.” To pick an example, the Democrats announced it was self-evident that “twelve years of Republican surrender to the dictatorship of a privileged few have been supplanted by a Democratic leadership which has returned the people themselves to the place of authority, and has revived in them new faith and restored the hope which they had almost lost.”
Obama followed FDR’s playbook, even unto the revival of hope and change. In fact, the 44th president’s indictment of the Republicans was much milder than Roosevelt’s, mostly because of the difference in their circumstances. In the midst of the Depression, the GOP was identified with Herbert Hoover, a figure far easier to excoriate than Ronald Reagan, whose successful presidency, even after two intervening Bushes, still buoys his party’s reputation.
In the 2012 campaign, Obama sided, to use his terms, with the middle class against the millionaires. But the underlying and decisive charge that the Republicans were led by a cabal of un-American plutocrats was never far away. In his acceptance speech at the convention last September, he argued, for instance, that “a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom . . . without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.” That selfish, unpatriotic view of freedom is the conservative view, he insinuates, which opposes all good things. The many good things conservatives oppose include, according to his second inaugural, equal opportunity, social security (in both small and capital letters), human dignity, reasoned debate, equal pay for women, equality for gays, short lines at the voting booth, “keeping our all our children . . . safe from harm,” acceptance of “the overwhelming judgment of science” on global warming, and, presumably for non-scientists, the duties of divine-right environmentalism (we must “preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God”).