Of the 57 inaugural addresses delivered by presidents of the United States, a mere 17 have been second inaugurals. Very occasionally — as in the case of Abraham Lincoln’s, which is inscribed on a wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington — and in the case of George W. Bush’s, the second inaugural has been better than the first. So what trajectory is America going to follow for the next four years, as judged by Obama’s second inaugural address on the National Mall?
Second inaugurals have seen soaring, but also disappointing, oratory, ranging wildly in terms of their rhetoric, yet rarely — if ever — has one revealed actual cowardice, which is what President Barack Obama’s did when he delivered it to an audience of hundreds of thousands from the West Front of the Capitol on Monday January 21.
It was cowardly because if he had enunciated the highlights of his policy agenda during the election only ten weeks previously, he would have lost. Gay marriage rights, climate change regulations, healthcare costs, entitlements, voting without proper ID and registration, the legalisation of illegal aliens, and gun control are all important issues in American politics. Yet they were ones that Obama either largely ignored or strenuously downplayed during the presidential election in order to win his “historic” 51.1 per cent to 47.2 per cent popular vote victory over Mitt Romney. Had he emphasised those issues in his campaign — which in his second inauguration speech he put at the top of his agenda for his next term — he would undoubtedly have put off the 2 per cent of electors who would have needed to change their votes in order for Romney to win. His true liberal agenda has only emerged now it is too late for the American people to vote against it.
In his 18-minute, 2,100-word speech, Obama delivered a paean to big government, something that only truly resonates with a minority of Americans. Union membership in the private sector has fallen from 24 per cent of workers in 1973 to 7 per cent in 2011, for example, although over the same period in the public sector it rose from 23 per cent to 37 per cent. This was more of a State of the Union speech masquerading as an inauguration speech, so replete was it with policy statements and digs at opponents, as opposed to the overarching worldview expected of presidents on such occasions. One suspects it will not be inscribed on any walls anytime soon.
In almost all political speeches there is some banality, of course — Obama actually said: “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course” — but close analysis of Obama’s banalities gives clues to his intentions. For this was the “You didn’t build that” speech, full of what government had achieved for the country, albeit through the repeated use of the straw man argument, as in: “No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.” The fact that nobody has ever suggested that one single person could train all America’s hundreds of thousands of maths and science teachers makes that sentence as otiose as: “Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.” Small wonder that Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has interpreted the speech as meaning that “the era of liberalism is back. His unashamedly far-left-of-centre speech certainly brings back memories of the Democratic Party in ages past.”