Obama's Velvet-Glove Inaugural Address

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(The Root) — Obama deserves very high but perhaps not superlative marks for his second inaugural address. It had more the character of an inside-the-park home run, not a grand slam. A 9 on my Olympic scorecard, not a full 10. Not a standout, A-plus effort, but certainly a quite solid A-minus. 


The speech will indeed be remembered, but probably not as one of his signature moments. In the same breath, let me say there is much that is clever and true and oh so right about this speech that is well worthy of praise.

Why not an A? First, save for his declarations about confronting global warming, the speech was a little too oblique in naming the current great challenges before us. He rightly did not want to sound a partisan note. And he understandably did not launch into a list of coming policy goals. But the paralysis in Washington brought on by the politics of economic brinkmanship, of the "my way or the highway" negotiation and of anti-government ideological extremity could have been called out more squarely.

To be sure, Obama stressed that the time has come to act. He also spoke of obligations in the present that have ramifying implications long into the future. And he repeatedly hit a note of American can-do optimism. Yet the forces standing in the path of rising to these challenges were never sharply identified. 

Second, the speech did not quite connect government duties and the expectations for both our collective financial and individual personal responsibilities. Doing so in a pithy and cogent way is no easy task. I freely confess that I am not up to it. But I think a clear articulation of this nexus of concerns is part of what is (painfully) missing from our politics today. It is also part of what I yearned for in Obama's second inaugural address. He gave us the glimmerings of an answer, but not a full-throated message.

Third, the speech had no immediate catchphrase that defines this day. I do not find the "with malice toward none, with charity for all" that Lincoln gave us in his second inaugural. Nor can I extract the parallel to "ask not what your country can do for you" of John F. Kennedy's first inaugural. Nor is there the Ronald Reagan-esque blunt declaration from his first inaugural that "government is the problem." 

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.