It was brief.
It’s tempting to stop here, having listed all the commendable aspects of the president’s second inaugural. But that would be uncharitable. So let us also acknowledge that the phrases taken from better-written speeches by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. were tastefully cribbed.
Okay, now we’re done.
So let’s move on and offer thanks to President Obama for settling what has been one of the more ridiculous disputes in American politics for the last five years: Is Obama a committed liberal, or is he a centrist, a pragmatist, or some other fashionable term? Well, guess what — he’s a committed liberal! Shocker.
The man who ran for president the first time opposing gay marriage (and lying about his past support of it) has championed it in his second inaugural. The man who once said all the right words on reforming entitlements and grappling with the debt has now made clear that he never meant any of it. The man who rode into office on a Pegasus named “Bipartisanship” has now used the inaugural podium to fling out the last bits of manure from the Obama campaign’s near-Augean stables. Some potshots were so thinly veiled, even the mainstream media recognized them. They included cracks at Mitt Romney, the guy he had just beaten, and George W. Bush, the cause of all of America’s problems. There were also barbs aimed at voter-ID laws, those who would “deny” global warming, and other familiar liberal targets.
While it’s certainly reasonable to be surprised that Obama would exploit his second inaugural address to excoriate his political opponents, suggesting that this is some sort of new and different Barack Obama is obtuse. A gobsmacked James Fallows called this the “most progressive speech Obama has ever given,” which is ludicrous even if you look only at his speeches as president. NBC’s Chuck Todd seemed stunned that Obama wanted to “mainstream the liberal progressive movement.”
The fact is that the Obama we saw on January 21, 2013, is the same old Obama. Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about his second inaugural is how unoriginal it was, both for him and for his cause. It’s a strange thing: President Obama has one of the most elevated reputations for oratorical skill of any politician, and yet he’s not known for any truly memorable speeches since his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address, or possibly his “race speech” of 2008. After nearly every other speech — State of the Union addresses, Oval Office statements, etc. — the response is that he was “surprisingly flat,” or that, for arcane reasons never fully explained, he opted not to deploy the rhetorical superpowers everyone knows he has but no one ever sees. It’s a wonderful place to be as a politician when, after you deliver a bad speech, everyone says, “He meant to do that.”
Philosophically, Obama’s inaugural was trite as well. “Obama’s speech lacked signature lines and was more direct than soaring,” concedes the liberal Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent, “but it was nonetheless enormously ambitious. It drew a direct line from language of the Founding Fathers straight through the great progressive presidents of the 20th Century, linking the founding language of liberty directly to the great debates of the present.” True enough; the ideas in Obama’s speech were already shopworn when FDR tried to replace the Bill of Rights with his “economic bill of rights.” If you’re of a masochistic bent, go back and read Obama’s acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic convention. It said the exact same things.