Barack Obama’s second inaugural address this wintry but sunny Monday morning was at one and the same time astonishing, unexpected in both its content and thrust, but also a perfect expression of the tonality of this man, our 44th president, and therefore unsurprising–at least to the handful of pundits, like me, who by the end of 2008 had come to understand him well.
This our nation’s 57th inaugural address is not what any of the former presidential speechwriters interviewed on TV over the last few days predicted. Obama did not deliver what political wise ones, such as the men and women quoted in the Sunday New York Times, asked for from him.
A speech at once lofty and yet anchored in a felicitous and therefore memorable sentence, as predecessors like FDR and Kennedy gave us? That we know from history both Obama and his speechwriters have the ability and acumen to provide?
On the contrary, despite the expected echoes of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King (Monday was MLK day, after all), Obama’s second inaugural struck some off-notes. “Peace in our time.” Perhaps Obama was thinking about Eddie Money’s beautiful lyrics; but most people heard Neville Chamberlain. All the more disconcerting because what we might call the “foreign policy” part of this inaugural address was a declaration that “the anchor of strong alliances” and renewing “those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad” will bring this peace in our time.
A speech that makes all listening Americans feel included?
What could Obama have supposed 45% of his fellow Americans would make of this declaration: “we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.” Conservatives are taking this straw-man construct as a slap-in-the-face. Why? Because this provocation is precisely the kind of false dichotomy that Obama wielded throughout his re-election campaign. Why false? Because no conservative, no Republican, is talking about changing entitlements for our current generation of elderly.
And Obama cannot resist a swipe at Mitt Romney here, with his comment that “our commitments we make to each other” . . . “do not make us a nation of takers.”
A speech that otherwise eschews policy specifics? Leaving the particulars of a second-term agenda to the upcoming State of the Union address?
Who could have predicted that President Obama would take up the arms of speech on behalf of two of the most contentious issues, arising out of profoundly different world views, that divide our country today: gay rights and climate change? For me, Obama’s yoking of Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall was moving. But I know many good people who will have found his naming of names, “our gay brothers and sisters,” alienating, threatening.
Climate change. Wow. We do not now at this point in this century have the technology to create low-cost, easy-to-use and therefore attractive (people will flock to use it) green energy–much less on a scale that could shift the climate patterns of a planet.
If Obama’s loving mention of gay Americans is much in keeping with the man as an incrementalist–after all, only four years ago he would not speak in favor of gay marriage–and reassuring to all thoughtful Americans precisely because the change is in character–then the lengthy disquisition on climate change and its connection to “the creed our [Founding] fathers once declared” is a cold clarion wake-up call both to Democrats (who have been whining for four years that Obama has not done enough) and to Republicans (who have been afraid of him from day one because they knew with a loser’s gut instinct that Obama would bring enormous change).
The chutzpah of the man. The ambition. The Caesar-like self-confidence. The throwing down of the challenge.
Here is a president who always thought, in his gut, that he could heal the partisan divide. And now he lays before our feet, at one of the most important moments of his presidency, his vision of America’s future that in both choice of subject matter and manner of delivery (lest people mistake his intent) was and is deeply divisive.
Go back and read again this second inaugural.
We. We. We. The recurring pronoun. Along with its brothers and sisters: our, together, one.
Obama’s second inaugural is a hymn to togetherness.
We gather to inaugurate.
We bear witness.
We affirm the promise.
In a speech shot-through with anaphora, none is more striking than “together, we determined,” “together, we discovered,” “together, we resolved.” What is striking is the rhetorical assurance of three assertions of working together that historically are true only in retrospect, from the distance of time. Yes, we now have railroads and highways; we have financial regulation; we have a social safety net. We did NOT, however, work together over the last two centuries to bring these developments to pass. We were in furious opposition to one another, and these changes to the American landscape came about through the messy and discordant clash of opposing forces, by trial and error, with profit and loss, in the refiner’s fire of tragedy and violence as well as the slower process of acceptance and adaptation.
What does it mean, therefore, that Obama misleads here? That, at minimum, he’s got the history wrong.
Barack Obama has a vision that, like all visions, is not embedded in the actual facts on the ground.
This observation leads me to the most important element of his second inaugural address. It is a profound testament of faith.
And I say this as someone who spent five years not that long ago reading many of the last wills & testaments that our eighteenth and nineteenth century American forebears recorded for posterity. I say this as a Christian who has always lived in the American borderland and therefore straddles the gulf between our increasingly secular culture, empowered by the voices of coastal elites in media and entertainment, on the one hand, and the widespread renewal of our religious faith, already entrenched in our history, on the other.
Americans on both sides of the divide have doubted Barack Obama’s religious faith. Some friends, usually but not always Democrats, say, “When Obama closes all his remarks with ‘God Bless America,’ he’s reading from a teleprompter. He does not really believe what he is saying. It’s politics.” The underlying reasoning here: Obama is highly intelligent and educated, just like me. Ergo, just like me, he must at heart be a secularist, although he can never say so.
Other friends, usually but not always Republicans, say, “Obama is not really a Christian. Unlike me, he is not churched. He is a biblical illiterate who knows only the bit about brother’s keeper. Unlike me, he does not have a wide and deep knowledge of Scripture.” Ergo, he must at heart be a secularist, although for political reasons he can never say so.
Well, I am here to tell you that Barack Obama is a religious man. If there is only one thing you keep in mind at all times about our president, let it be this. He believes–let me say this more strongly–he has a quiet certainty that the Lord God our Creator has called him to lead us.
More than anywhere else lies, just here in his faith, his sense of affinity with Lincoln. Like Lincoln, Obama is utterly disinterested in doctrine, in sectarian particulars. Here is the crux of Obama’s always thinking about Lincoln. And so language in this second inaugural echoes Lincoln’s second inaugural, his Gettysburg Address, his 1862 speech to Congress, and perhaps more revealingly, in his appropriation from Lincoln’s struggle to foresee a place for African-Americans in a post-slavery America, Lincoln’s often-used phrase “the wages of honest labor.”
Take away these Lincolnian allusions and the twenty-first century second-term to-do list, Obama’s second inaugural is a history lesson from a man who once was a teacher. In implicit confrontation with the Tea Party, Obama, taking us to what he calls that “spare Philadelphia hall,” summons the Founding Fathers. This second inaugural is an invocation of what Obama calls “our founding creed,” and Obama wields the word “creed” again and again. This is the noun, among so many he could have chosen, that Obama associates with the actions of the great men of 1776. A word imbued with religious association, declaration of faith, serious intent and its corollary action.
The noun–the one word–from which everything else in this second inaugural arises. What a bold choice from a man who, as I just observed, is utterly disinterested in doctrinal and sectarian particulars. What a bold choice for man who knows full well that many of his influential supporters and his partisans among the media find the idea, much the reality, of “creed” anathema.
Central to our creed, as Obama sees it, is us, we the people, moving forward together as we continue to improve on the American political and social experiment. Implicit to the word “creed,” however, is faith. A creed has always been a set of religious beliefs–and never more so in history than among American immigrants who even now come here to practice faith according to creed unacceptable elsewhere. At heart, this is what is so astonishing about Obama’s second inaugural. His history lesson Monday is a declaration that faith in God is inextricably intertwined with our political heritage from the Founding Fathers, even as our Bill of Rights guarantees that every one of us is free to embrace the specific creed or set of beliefs of our choice.
The mind and character of Barack Obama are shaped by paradox. This is one of his traits that makes him difficult to understand. He is that rare individual who can hold in equilibrium, within himself, one idea or strategy or action and at the same time its opposite.
And, of course–really, need I say?–the conviction that the intent and actions of our Founder Fathers, as well as the documents they have bequeathed us, were and are inextricably part of a teleological universe–well, that’s a conservative view today.
In talking about the imperative of dealing with climate change, Obama says, “That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”
The various presumptions in these two sentences! Suffice to say, for my purposes here, that again Obama has intertwined divergence. He has taken science and religion and history and ancestral devotion and made them same.
What does Obama’s second inaugural mean for the future? If anything?
You know how pundits and presidential historians have been predicting the arc of Obama’s second term. The common observation: Obama will have one year, at best eighteen months, to get anything done. After that he is a lame duck.
Obama’s second term is going to be crammed with myriad launches, whether through executive orders or legislation or inchoate decision-making, to the end. It is going to be a roiling experience, also because neither of the two assumptions Obama made in his second inaugural will hold.
“A decade of war is now ending.”
“The wages of honest labor [will] liberate families from the brink of hardship.”
No great power ever sees the end of war. The American economy will continue to limp, and jobs will still be scarce. Nobody will be happy. Not Obama (anemic economy, coffins forever at Andrews Air Force Base). Not the American people, who are going to be pissing mad at rising taxes, the chaos and cost in implementing ObamaCare. Those of us who care about foreign policy will have to witness the tragic spectacle of an imploding Afghanistan, after we leave next year, when its neighbors move in for the kill.
But we will be living through four years of great change that will, I believe, make us Americans better prepared, firmly situated, tougher, to face what the rest of this century gives us.
Lest you think I am wrong, remember this second inaugural. Obama’s force of will, his certainty, his resolve. Above all, his religious faith.
We who have lived into the second decade of the twenty-first century know what religious faith can accomplish, for good and ill. After all, it is the force that can move mountains.
January 22, 2013