As President Obama embarks on a second term, did his speech still soar, his message inspire? Guardian columnists decide
Jonathan Freedland: 'A full-throated case for the very idea of government'
They say second inaugurals lack the power of the first, that they can't match the impact and novelty of seeing a one-time candidate transformed anew, into a president. But they have one crucial advantage. The second time around the president does not have to watch and weigh his words, worried about his chances for re-election. This time, he can speak freely, knowing he will never face the voters again. Which is what explains the speech we just witnessed, a speech delivered by an Obama unbound.
This was a full-throated case for the very idea of government, a speech which, both in its core argument and additional flourishes, located Obama unashamedly on the liberal left. Shorter and less ponderous shorter than his 2009 address, it was not roundabout but cut straight to the point:
"Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action."
The very word "collective" can bring some on the American right out in hives. But Obama was direct. It would take government, not just a Steve Jobs or two, to prepare the US for the 21st century.
"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."
This was a more elegant articulation of the view that landed Obama in trouble during the 2012 campaign: that if you built a business, "you didn't build that" alone – you benefited from American society working together.
But that was not the only reason why some on Twitter hastily branded the speech "socialist". Obama also insisted that America cannot function unless everyone shares in its riches. He spoke up for Medicare, Medicaid, and social security, tacitly rebuking Mitt Romney's talk of a parasitic "47%", by saying of those programmes:
"They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."
Progressive hearts will have lifted at the reference to the feminist landmark of Seneca Falls, the gay battleground of Stonewall (making this the first inaugural address to include the word "gay"), the implicit promise of action on equal marriage, and the rallying cry on climate change. But it was the core message of the speech that marked Obama out as a kindred spirit.
More than 30 years ago, Ronald Reagan used his inaugural address to declare government "the problem". Here was Obama unleashed at last, ready to defend government as the tool of We the People – and promising to use it for good.
Jill Filipovic: 'By the time Beyonce was singing, my cynicism was abated'
Whether you like or loathe Barack Obama, his inauguration today put one brilliant vision of America on display. A Latina supreme court justice who grew up in the South Bronx swearing in the vice-president; a gay Cuban-American abuse survivor the inauguration poet laureate; a civil rights icon whose husband was slain for the crime of seeking equality delivering the inaugural prayer; a man with a Kenyan father, a Kansan mother, the middle name "Hussein" and an Indonesian childhood taking the oath of the presidency for a second term.
Not to mention the fact that this was a public swearing-in that occurred on a national holiday most Americans have off work – not a holiday for the inauguration, but in memory of a radical political leader who advocated for racial equality, economic justice and the end of war, and who was repaid with FBI surveillance, incarceration and, in the end, assassination.
It's not a vision that all Americans embrace – even though you'd be hard-pressed now to find many who would admit, with hindsight and in public, that they would have supported things like slavery and segregation. This fact – that still, the United States has not fully realized its promises of fairness, that we are a country populated by a great many people who actively work against justice, that obstructionists to equality control one of our two political parties – was perhaps the most important theme highlighted in Obama's speech.
His speechwriters, as usual, were more than adept at crafting a broad narrative, appealing to American traditionalist sensibilities by highlighting the words and deeds of our founding fathers, and employing the campaign-winning rhetoric of unity and shared American values. But in painting our historical arc, President Obama's choices were particularly telling: Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall.
Those places didn't simply host events that resonate with the traditionally marginalized groups who now make up a majority of the American population. Those are the places that made this inauguration story possible.
By emphasizing Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall, President Obama painted them into the official portrait of America, right next to George Washington and the Declaration of Independence. Not all of us were made independent in 1776 and not all of our rights were reflected in the original bill of ten; Obama made sure his telling of American history included all Americans.
His calls for equal pay, marriage equality, immigrants' rights, and voting rights sent the clear message that those ideals are part of the same line. They are what Martin Luther King Jr called "the long arc of history" hopefully bending toward justice. (They also seemed carefully selected not just for a general listening audience, but for the panel of supreme court justices sitting in front of him, and gearing up for hearings on most of those very issues in the coming months.)
It's inspiring to see our president using his inaugural podium to advocate for the poor, the tired, the huddled masses trying to breathe free. By the time Beyonce was singing the national anthem, my cynicism from his last term had at least partly abated.
Yet the history lesson demonstrated more than just how far we've come. It's 2013 and we are still asking that women, people of color, immigrants, the poor, gays, and lesbians be treated as equal citizens. Our historical arc is still bending toward justice, but still obstructed, still not quite there.
Heidi Moore: 'An elegantly stated to-do list of economic promises yet to be kept'
Obama's second inaugural address was designed to be stirring look into a populist future – he reportedly consulted historians on how to construct it. But it was, instead, a very elegantly stated to-do list on what he has still to do to make good on the economic promises of his first term. Among those items: tackle the unemployment crisis; end the expensive wars; do something about climate change (a topic he largely ignored during the campaign), as well as revamp the tax code; and shrink the gap between the 1% and the 99%:
"For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America's prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class."
It's no surprise, then, that the largest item on Obama's to-do list took up the largest portion of the economic elements of his speech: the lingering thorns of the "fiscal cliff" fight about government spending. Key Republicans have aimed to cut entitlements, like social security and Medicaid. Obama has alternately demanded that the entitlements are not on the negotiating table and has urged Republicans not to touch them. He made one big pitch again on that stage:
"We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and social security, these things 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."
That "nation of takers" line should not go unnoticed: it echoes Obama's speech only a week ago, urging Republicans to raise the debt ceiling, in which Obama said America "is not a deadbeat nation". And that is the key to Obama's second term: it's about owing and paying.
Some of the conventional wisdom during the election held that voters were perhaps not as enchanted with Obama as they had been four years ago, but that they wanted to give him the chance to finish what he started. In their eyes, he owes them a lot on those campaign promises.
It's probably encouraging to them to hear this speech and realize that he does, after all, intend to pay up.
Michael Wolff: 'Each piece a nod to some group or interest'
Presidents seem to have long ago given up the pretense that an inaugural address should be different from other speeches – or they've lost the ability to make it so.
We may naturally wish for a larger story, a greater understanding, an elevated view. But this is a speech like any other: lots of stuff crammed together, each piece a nod to some group or interest, like a meal of little bites. Or a resounding thud of cliches.
President Obama began with predictable shibboleths about American democracy, and the usual self-congratulations about once again having elected a president and having an inauguration. He quoted founding documents – nothing new, just the most hackneyed phrases. He then spoke of the journey, to bridge those words with the reality of our time, and set the journey theme that would run throughout the speech.
His basic answer about how to bridge the historic sentiments with our current predicament was an active government. This was the essential, if unsurprising, point of the speech: freedom needs government oversight and regulation. Except, he rushed to say … this won't happen by government alone, but requires hard work and responsibility … Except, he rushed to take back … preserving individual freedom requires collection action. How else are we gong to build roads and research labs? Duh.
There was the requisite echo of JFK (the last president who is thought to have given an inaugural-worthy speech): this is a generation of American tested by crisis.
The point being that things are bad, but with less partisanship, they can get better. "We will seize this moment as long as we seize it together …"
Then a bow to the "broad shoulders of the rising middle class", followed shortly by the use of the word "harnessing". Something of a nod to the working man.
He hits the big issues: healthcare and the general social safety net – "social commitments don't make us a nation of takers." Then climate change: an elevation for this issue, and a dig at people who don't accept science (you know who you are). Then peace – or if not quite peace, at least the president comes out squarely against perpetual war (with another JFK echo: we're a generation "tempered by the flames of battle").
And then a catch-all call out to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, and the victims of prejudice. (At this point, three-quarters through, it becomes evident that he is surely not going to pull out a memorable speech.) Then, a bow to women, to mothers and daughters who ought to have equitable earning power.
And to our gay brothers and sisters who ought to be treated equally under the law. And immigrants. And children … and a fleeting reference to Newtown.
And a dig at Republicans who mistake "absolutism for principle" and "name-calling for reasoned debate". And finally, a note to lower expectations with the reminder: "our work will be imperfect, victories only partial."
No new ground or more deeply-focused ambitions. No lessons learned, nor line in the stand. No clear reason for being.
But the speech was short.
Martin Kettle: 'Peaceful engagement is the aspiration for the second term'
Watching the inauguration from across the Atlantic, Barack Obama's address was at once strikingly distinctive and remarkably familiar.
It was, on the one hand, the inaugural speech of the president of the United States and not an address to the rest of the world. So its primary audience was, equally obviously, the American voter and the American people (as apotheosised in Obama's rhetoric).
The majority of the speech seemed very specific to the American experience and very specific to the American present. There were overarching American themes – like the connections to the nation's revolutionary history, its civil war, the legacy of slavery and discrimination. There was also the more immediate American referencing of issues like economic recovery, healthcare costs, the deficit, the impact of storms, and the way the speech privileged immigration.
A foreign observer notes these things, while also reflecting that the US political system seems well-designed to frustrate much of what Obama would like to do in such fields. But this is a day for optimism.
On the other hand, this was also inescapably an address to the rest of a world – of which, even today, the US is the first among unequals. Here, three things stand out to foreign ears.
First, this was a very recognisable speech: no European social democrat or centre-left politician from around the globe could fail to identify with Obama's lofty attempt to validate the role of government within an essential acceptance of market capitalism, or his appeal to national unity, or, in particular, the strong defence of the welfare principle. Britain's Labour leader Ed Miliband, for example, will have been delighted to hear Obama invoke the "one nation" theme, which is at the heart of his own attempt to reposition Labour in the UK.
Second, the speech made a particular point of highlighting climate change, and the path to sustainability. This was one of the areas in which the Obama first term was disappointing to international environmental opinion. Some will see the saliency of the issue in the president's second inaugural as mere words. But many around the planet will be encouraged to use the speech's pledges to try to push climate issues back up the agenda, after their relegation during the economic downturn.
Finally, while the speech was inevitably short on foreign and security specifics, it was noticeable that Obama at least mentioned the Middle East, Asia, and Africa – though not, unless I missed it, Europe: an omission that will feed insecurity in every capital of the EU.
Obama's principal foreign policy claim was that this is the end of a decade of war. But he went out of his way to make clear that America is not pulling up the drawbridge. Peaceful engagement is the aspiration for the second term.
Lots of world opinion will be deeply cynical. But on a day such as this, one can at least hope it means something.
Ana Marie Cox: 'An unpleasant reminder for Republicans that their guy lost – and their ideas'
So which inauguration did you watch?
I watched the one they showed on Fox News – you know, between updates on Benghazi and the Algerian hostages. That's how frustrated they are over at Fox with having to report on Obama's inauguration: they'd rather report "the news" instead.
For them, not only was the event marking Obama's second term in office an unpleasant reminder that their guy lost, but the speech itself was also an unpleasant reminder that their ideas lost. The Fox News host Chris Wallace complained afterwards that the speech lacked any mention of deficit reduction. Fair enough: "deficit reduction" is the "horses and bayonets" of political warfare – outmoded, antique, irrelevant to the larger task at hand.
In his rhetoric, at least, and at least today, Obama's moved past the picayune, and instead, gave a speech outlining the biggest goals America can strive for: equality, justice, even revolution.
Also on Fox, columnist Charles Krauthammer harrumphed: "There's not a line here that will ever be repeated." Apparently, he missed the echo that followed Obama's invocation of Stonewall – and the mere mention of the word "gay".
This was not a conciliatory speech, to be sure. This was not a speech that sought to reach across the aisle. This was a speech that looked forward, not to the side.
Those who argue that Obama lost an opportunity to soothe conservative egos (or maybe just their fears) by forsaking moderation or apology might have forgotten that he did a lot of that, I dunno, four years ago. I don't know if this relative stridency will work better than reconciliation, as far as advancing Obama's goals is concerned, but at least he's setting those goals higher.
Michael Cohen: 'A future-oriented address with an unmistakably progressive sheen'
Over the weekend, I wrote for the Guardian that inaugural addresses tend to be banal, platitudinous affairs with saccharine pieties to national unity – and the Barack Obama's second inaugural was unlikely to be much different. Today, Barack Obama proved that argument quite wrong.
Rather than an empty call to national unity, Obama offered one of the most full-throated defenses of liberalism that this or any other president has delivered – and he did so in the shadow of unquenchable internecine political conflict. There was an attack on inequality:
"For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it."
There was a loud and unabashed pushback on those who would slash social insurance programs:
"The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and social security – these things 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."
There was a call to arms on climate change – and a pointed attack on those who would deny its risk:
"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. 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."
And finally, there was an extraordinary defense of gay rights that linked it directly to the cause of women's suffrage and civil rights:
"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall."
In short, this was the speech of a man who is not intent to rest on his first-term laurels, but rather, one who is inclined to use his second term to push forward an agenda that is not only bold, but unapologetically progressive. Instead of a mushy call for national unity, Obama made clear in his remarks that rather than reconcile himself to the nation's toxic and dysfunctional politics, it is the president's opponents who must reconcile themselves to his program.
And this was apparent in the very make-up of the inaugural ceremony, officiated by a female Puerto Rican supreme court justice, a Jewish emcee, a gay Cuban poet, a black female invocation speaker, a southern white senator, a choir from Brooklyn, and a black president: this is America.
On a day when the nation honors one of its greatest citizens, Martin Luther King Jr, what we saw at the Capitol was the dream MLK talked about nearly five decades ago at the other end of the Mall. In short, this was not the favorite inaugural ceremony for the president's loudest and extreme opponents.
This was not simply the political coalition that re-elected Barack Obama president, but the coming destiny of this nation. And in the shadow of that diverse and cosmopolitan image of this America's future, Obama offered a political agenda very much in tune with that tableau. This was a very future-oriented address, with an unmistakably progressive sheen.
None of this means Obama will be successful in his second term. There is still the matter of radical House Republicans whom Obama sought quite clearly to isolate in his remarks. But however the next four years play out, what was clear is that Obama will not go down without a fight – and he will do so from the leftward side of the political spectrum.
Naomi Wolf: 'Restore freedom locally before claiming to extend it globally'
The spectacle on the Mall during President Obama's inauguration was a scene of the great theatre of "democracy" – but masking what will likely go into the history books as the greatest loss of democracy in the United States in its history (short, perhaps, of President Lincoln suspending habeas corpus during the civil war). President Obama's first term consolidated more than George W Bush had managed to do: the loss of central freedoms guaranteed in the US constitution.
Freedom was invoked in President Obama's remarks, as in the others'. But what does "freedom" in these speeches really refer to now?
The tragedy of this moment is that since 2008, the balance of power has completely changed between those on the dais and those in the Mall. Those on the dais can ignore them; eavesdrop on them; and now, it seems, disarm them (though I hate guns, I recognize another constitutional right when it is under fire – this time with an unprecedented two-score executive orders).
Those on the dais can now imprison at will those in the Mall and keep them forever. The president can, if he puts their name on a list, kill them.
In his remarks, President Obama did not just declare that ten years of war are over – a tactic I now recognize (from Piers Brendon's excellent history, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire) as being the kind of thing that British imperialists declared to home audiences periodically, even as they ramped up wars of choice in region after region – but promised to "act on behalf of those who long for freedom globally".
Really? How about starting at home: how about restoring freedom locally before claiming to extend it globally?
And why not celebrate a new term by actually recognizing what an inauguration in America is – not an investment of power (a mistake the speakers kept making), but an assumption by the executive of a responsibility, an obligation, contracted in an oath to "preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States".