The speech delivered by president at his second inauguration said many good things. He emphasized the value of collective action, of seeing ourselves as needing to work together and not separately to achieve important goals. In fact, his repeated invocation of the phrase ‘we, the people’ was a pointed rebuke to those who want us to see ourselves as individuals, looking out for just ourselves.
He emphasized the danger of rising inequality, saying that “we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it” and reminded us that anyone who is currently doing well can be struck down by a natural disaster or sickness and need the help of others to weather it. He praised Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as things that “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”. The mention of ‘takers’ was clearly a dig at those such as Mitt Romney and his backers who portray themselves as makers and the rest of us as takers.
He accepted climate change as a fact and a threat to be met. He reiterated his commitment to alternative energy sources. He acknowledged the flawed origins of the country in slavery. He called for better treatment of immigrants.
But most surprising was his call for members of the gay community to have full equality, saying that we must strive to see that “our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” I thought his rhetorical sequencing of landmark events signified by Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall was a nice touch, putting equal rights for gays as the end point of a straight line trajectory for equality that began with women and continued with race.
I wondered whether his audience for that segment of his speech was less the nation at large and more the Supreme Court justices present at the ceremony who are due to rule on same-sex marriage this term. Perhaps Obama was hoping to have them reflect on whether they wanted the court to be on the wrong side of history, as in the Dred Scott case, or on the right side as in Brown v. Board of Education.
The poet who delivered the inaugural poem, Richard Blanco is also gay, so this was historic moment for both gay and Latino communities since it was the first time a person belonging to either group gave the poem. This will really upset some people who see equal rights for the LGBT community as the path leading to hell.
Many of the things Obama chose to highlight, like those I’ve mentioned, will be anathema to the Tea Partiers, xenophobes, homophobes, climate change deniers, and social conservatives who make up much of the Republican party base so this speech will rankle many people and we can expect some serious pushback.
I have been critical in the past of the way singers of the national anthem at big occasions tend to really mess things up, either by their inability to hit the full range of notes required and chickening out at the high point or with their showboating. But I thought Beyonce did a good job on both counts.
Of course, speeches are one thing. We have to understand that both Democrats and Republicans are both ultimately servants of the oligarchy and thus we should not expect any fundamental challenge to the oligarchic stranglehold on the country. But we can hope for some movement on the areas Obama highlighted and we need to see if his actions during his second term come anywhere close to his rhetoric yesterday. With politicians we have to always be on our guard because they are often experts at the cynical ploy of lulling supporters into a false sense of security and then take them by surprise by suddenly selling out. So extreme vigilance will be required to hold Obama to his words.
But a speech that says the right things is better than one that says the wrong things so all in all it was a good start to Obama’s send term.