At the core of Barack Obama’s second inaugural address there was the sense of a politician who has learned in four years the limitations of his office and his own ability to bridge the divisions in American society and its political system. The great aspirational themes of 2008 of overcoming differences, consensus and bipartisanship have given way to, as one commentator put it, “looking at his next four years with a sense of frustration and impatience, [as one] who now believes that a different style of leadership is required . . . Monday, it was not ‘Come, let us reason together’. It was ‘Follow me’.”
But there was also the Obama unchained, the Obama freed from the stultifying political constraints of a re-election campaign, the Obama who can now say what he wants. In part it was the authority of his new mandate, in part, the fact of nothing to lose and no weight of expectations, and in part, a reflection of a new balance of forces in Congress – he has forced the Republicans to blink in their budget battle by confronting them head on.
Now is the opportunity to set out what he hopes will be his legacy, and he spoke out as forcefully as he has yet done for the aspirations of the coalition of women, blacks, gays – the first president to mention gays in an inaugural – and immigrants who elected him .
His agenda includes same-sex marriage, an attack on poverty, the championing of civil rights, immigration reform, equal rights, gun control, fighting global warming, and, despite the challenge of the economy, the defence of welfare and pension entitlements. In US terms it is a left of centre, quintessentially “liberal” agenda that will have gladdened the hearts of many Democratic supporters disappointed by the first term and an all-too pragmatic, centrist Obama. Whether he can now deliver on such an ambitious programme is another matter. Every battle will be hard fought .
Obama also took the opportunity to revisit a philosophical argument that was at the heart of the presidential contest and is central to the ideological chasm that divides the two parties. In a robust defence of the place of the state against Republican extreme individualism, he argued that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action”. The commitments citizens make to each other through collective health, education, or welfare provision “do not weaken initiative, they strengthen us,” he said. And in a direct reminder of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s disparagement of much of the electorate as spongers off the state, he said, “they do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
Above all it was a call to action, a promise that it will be a lively second term. “For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay . . .We must act.”