- Tom Silva
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President Obama was inaugurated for his second term — the 44th president — a day after he took his oath on the constitutionally required date at the White House. The crowd was smaller, the weather throughout most of the nation was biting cold, and the message was hope chilled with the experience and weariness of a drawn-out recession. Out of the lofty rhetoric and perfunctory promises, we looked for themes that point to the tenor of an Obama second term.
The President started his speech with a historical framing of the event (“The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few, or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people”) before weaving in the architecture of the Obama doctrine – of government activism, of infrastructure improvement, his belief in the transformative power of education and an enlarged notion of citizenship.
It is interesting to compare Obama’s tone with the addresses of his predecessors: President Reagan declared an end to the era of big government and President Clinton signaled a move into a new century. Using phrases like “our generation’s task” Obama pronounced “a decade of war” as “now ending”. Much of the latter half of the speech used the Obama language of renewal to posit a third way, between FDR and Reagan, of individualism and collectivism. “Seize it together”, “the broad shoulders of a rising middle class”, were followed by raising the promise of a little girl rising out of poverty with the help of a social safety net. This signaled a new level of inclusiveness for an inaugural address (“ We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few” ) with reference to “our gay brothers and sisters”. Most memorably, he referred to “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall,” a threading of social movements that drew the gay community, women and African Americans into a common civil rights narrative.
The President remains an extraordinary orator, his voice rising and dipping in pitch and volume, the meter of his delivery tightening and then relaxing throughout the speech. No matter what side of the political spectrum one finds oneself, there is no question that the occasion of the American inauguration remains significant in human history. We are second only to England in terms of the number of consecutive peaceful transitions of power. This remains a supreme achievement at a time when the right to vote remains contested in so much of the world. Inaugural day is a nod to the legacy of our union and a pledge to the future.