Obama's Velvet-Glove Inaugural Address
Straight Up: POTUS went for the light touch. A good speech, but maybe not one for the history books.
To Obama's credit, if the speech lacked a singular rhetorical flourish, it nonetheless smartly and deftly set a tone for his second term. Obama tethered these next four years to the modern fulfillment of the deepest of American obligations: the American creed. He poignantly invoked that elegant and powerful declaration that we are all created equal and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Without naming anyone or anything an enemy, without yoking himself to a partisan ideology and without the pugilistic directness that some of his supporters (myself included) might have preferred, Obama did lay the elements of a foundation for greatness.
He did not declare government to be the answer to all of our needs. Yet Obama invoked the multiple obligations that government must fulfill. This spanned providing for schools, highways and national defense to refereeing a free market and checking inequalities that might otherwise engorge the few while deeply immiserating the many. Obama also made it clear, in FDR-esque terms, that an array of genuine, government-backed safety net programs "do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."
Obama did not use the terms "inclusion" or "empowerment." Nonetheless, he made the case that fulfilling America's deepest values -- rising to the challenge of the American creed -- requires bringing into full and effective membership those now disadvantaged by gender, sexuality, citizenship status or racial discrimination.
He also effectively reinforced a theme of both the 2008 and 2012 election campaigns: Citizens must be involved if our system is to work. The implicit message here is that in order for him to move a recalcitrant Congress, Obama will need the ongoing support of a clear majority of the American people. Winning an election was not enough. For him to govern effectively in these times, "we the people" will need to show a high level of continued political engagement.
Obama's second inaugural, in a fashion, fits the metaphor of a velvet glove. He went for the light touch. In lieu of declaring sides, plainly identifying friends and foes and openly embracing ideological taglines, Obama raised high our core values and principles and then linked them to how we must approach governing in our time. There are some virtues to having crafted the speech in a fashion that assured that many beyond his most ardent allies heard and will be potentially moved by it. Bravo and well done.
Yet within that velvet glove, many of us hope, Obama stands ready to wield a steel fist. One television commentator noted that Obama has been longer on his "outside the Beltway game" than his "inside the Beltway game." I think I see in this speech a much shrewder and more seasoned D.C. insider in Obama. I am not yet ready to forecast greatness, but Obama impresses me as truly ready to seize this moment.
Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.