Obama’s Second Inaugural: A New Term, a More Progressive Tone

In his second Inaugural Address, the President issues a call to action on climate change, economic equality and gay rights

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Win McNamee / Getty Images

Barack Obama arrives at his presidential Inauguration on the West Front of the Capitol on Jan. 21, 2013 in Washington

For his second Inauguration, Barack Obama delivered the campaign speech he never got to give before his re-election, a paean to progressive values that called for a new movement of citizen activism to combat global warming, push for more gun control, protect entitlements and strive for greater equality among economic classes, genders and sexual orientations.

“You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course,” he said, in a return to his organizing roots. “You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time, not only with the votes we cast but with the voices we lift.”

Gone were the appeals that drove his first presidential campaign — of crossing party lines, transcending ideological differences and uniting the country. Speaking to a sea of supporters on Washington’s National Mall, Obama gave voice to what his advisers have long said in private: that the only way for the President to work his will on a divided government over the next two years is to apply tremendous outside pressure on his opponents. “We, the people,” was his refrain, an activist appropriation of the opening words of the U.S. Constitution.

“We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action,” he said, neatly summarizing the ideological underpinnings of modern American liberalism.

He said that “our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts,” and “until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.” He called for immigration reform that would “welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as the land of opportunity,” said no citizen should have to wait for hours in order to vote, and referenced the coming battle over guns by saying that “from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown,” children must always feel safe. He cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on the National Mall and placed himself in the tradition of “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall,” key landmarks in the fights for women’s equality, civil rights and gay rights.

Though Obama made no direct reference to his Republican opponents, he made clear his intent to engage directly over the coming years. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics or treat name calling as reasoned debate,” he said. At another point, he laid into those who deny the reality of climate change, a subject he rarely raised during the campaign for political reasons. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms,” he said.

Obama’s first Inaugural Address, in January 2009, was a dour recitation of the struggles facing the U.S. After the soaring rhetoric and expectations of the 2008 campaign, Obama stood on the Capitol steps to declare that the country was “in the midst of crises now well understood.” He compared the moment to the darkest days of the Revolutionary War, when “the capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood.”

In contrast, Obama did not dwell on the current struggles of the country in his second Inaugural Address. He made only passing reference to the ongoing jobs crisis in the U.S., twice referring to needs for further federal investments to spur new growth. He also glossed over impending international crises, from Syria to Iran to North Africa, focusing instead on general principles for foreign engagement, from the support of international alliances to the promotion of democracy. Whereas he wore a red tie for his 2009 Inauguration, this time he wore one of powder blue, nearly matching the color of his 2012 campaign signs.

“Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time,” he said, in reference to the ongoing battles with House Republicans. “For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay.”

After the ceremony concluded, the President walked to the doorway of the Capitol and paused, allowing his entourage to continue inside. He turned and faced the National Mall, where hundreds of thousands had gathered to celebrate his re-election as President. For nearly a minute, he just took the scene in and then ducked inside for the rest of the festivities.

An hour later, his new political organization, a nonprofit called Organizing for Action, sent an e-mail to supporters that ended, “Now it’s time to finish what we started — let’s get going.” The e-mail was signed “Barack.”