With its elegant rendering of the liberal agenda before the eyes of the American people, President Barack Obama's second inaugural address was music to the ears of many a progressive. But to the ears of Tea Partiers and the Republican right, this inauguration speech, as well as the ceremony that surrounded it, was war -- not just a war of words, but a war of prayer, a war of poetry and even, perhaps, a war of song.
Driving the message home were the hands of the Fates, who conspired to see the second inauguration of the nation’s first African American president fall on Martin Luther King Day, the national holiday whose very creation was opposed by so many who still today comprise the Republican Party’s right wing.
Here we recount a dozen ways in which the president brought his fight to the right, in no uncertain terms, at his second inauguration.
1. Reminding the nation who won the Civil War. On the eve of Obama’s second inauguration, civil rights leader Julian Bond addressed a crowd of progressives gathered in Washington, D.C., at the Peace Ball convened by the activist restauranter Andy Shallal, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, and a host of progressive entities. Bond spelled out the statistics of Obama’s 2012 victory for the crowd, noting that Mitt Romney’s voters were almost entirely white, and that, of the 11 states that belonged to the old Confederacy, Romney won nine.*
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the anthem of Union troops in the Civil War, long ago passed into the songbook of patriotic themes, and has been played during the inaugural parades of other presidents, sung on several different occasions by the very white Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But when the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, in all its multicultural glory, was tapped to sing the anthem not from a parade stand, but from the ceremonial podium, a different chord was struck, thanks to its context: the invocation that preceded it, and the president's speech, which followed it.
2. Reminding the nation of the history of the civil rights movement. The significance of the president’s first musical selection could easily be dismissed, had it not been for the fact of how it was bookended: on the front end, the invocation by Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of the slain civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, and afterward by the president’s own speech, in which he acknowledged the nation’s history of slavery. From the invocation by Evers-Williams:
One hundred-fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years after the March on Washington, we celebrate the spirit of our ancestors, which has allowed us to move from a nation of unborn hopes and a history of disenfranchised votes, to today’s expression of a more perfect union.
Near the beginning of the president’s own address were these lines:
Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.
3. Reclaiming the founding documents for liberalism. The president didn’t waste any time plucking the heartstrings of the Tea Party movement, citing both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in the opening paragraph of his inaugural address. It was from the latter that he got the most mileage, beginning with his recitation of the Declaration’s opening strains:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob.
Hear that, Messrs. Koch? Did ya catch that mob thing, Tea Partiers?
4. Throwing right-wing rhetoric right back at ‘em. In most political contests, a good political consultant will tell her client never to repeat the opposition’s framing of you. But, as the nation’s first black president, Obama finds himself in a position like no other. To ignore the rhetoric of the right as it is deployed against him lends a sort of cover to the racism that is often implicit in it -- or the simplistic ridiculousness of it all. When Obama, as he has since his re-election, acknowledges and, yes, even repeats that language, he lets the rest of America know that he’s in on the joke, and he thinks it’s a pretty lame joke.
Here, Obama shoots down the Tea Party's interpretation of the American Revolution, which is all about individualism:
For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.
So that line about “the tyranny of a king”? Yeah, that was for the wing-nuts who paint the president as a tyrant in order to justify their call for his overthrow or the overthrow of the U.S. government. Later in the address, Obama, defending the social safety net, took on the right’s “producerism” trope, heard from pundits and politicians throughout Rightlandia, that America is populated by two kinds of people, “the takers” versus “the makers”. (Remember that "47 percent" video?)
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.
And Ayn Rand wept.
5. Actually, you really didn’t build that. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney and his allies tried to make hay of Obama’s poorly crafted defense of government projects and collective action. In fact, Romney devoted an entire day of the Republican National Convention to refuting a straw man of an idea that Obama never stated, claiming that the president said small business owners were not truly the builders of their businesses. What the president actually said was that the success of small businesses depended, as well, on things the individual could not provide: roads, bridges and a public education system.
In his inauguration speech, Obama showed he’s not backing down from that claim, no matter how hard the right may try to misconstrue it:
Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.
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.
6. Tearing von Mises to pieces. Right-wing leaders -- as well as Wall Street bankers, industrial polluters, processed-food producers, and any number of one-percenters -- have their resentful followers believing that there’s no such thing as a good government regulation. Much of their reasoning is found in what is known as the Austrian school of economics, notably in the work of Ludwig von Mises and Frederick Hayek. With a single sentence, Obama dismissed that entire branch of quackonomics with the back of his hand:
Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.
7. Calling out the climate-change deniers with a call to action. In a speech as concise as the president’s second inaugural, the paragraph he devoted to climate change is significant. Not only did the president call for the U.S. to take the lead in battling climate change, in part through the development of new technologies, he also smacked down any doubters (such as, one might imagine, those inculcated to doubt by the many right-wing enterprises funded by energy barons Charles and David Koch):
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. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.
8. Spanish is the loving tongue, amigos. After a long jihad against Spanish-speaking Americans, right-wing Republicans are reaping their just rewards, left with the impossible task of electing their next president without Latino votes, or doing an about-face on their anti-immigrant policies. In the 2012 presidential election, Latino turnout was the highest it’s ever been, and nearly all of those Latinos voted for Barack Obama. They were rewarded by the sight of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic to sit on the Supreme Court, conducting the oath of office ceremony for Vice President Joe Biden, as well as a poem presented by Richard Blanco, the son of Cuban immigrants, and a benediction, partly delivered in Spanish, by Luis Leon, a priest who came to the U.S. as a Cuban refugee.
And in his speech, Obama did not disappoint those who seek entry to America, whether from Latin America or elsewhere:
Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.
9. Making the moral, patriotic case for the social safety net and against poverty. As mentioned in item #4, Obama made a strong case for maintaining Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as government programs. Using the timeworn opening phrase of the Constitution’s preamble, he wove that case into a broader argument for collective action, care for the greater community and the fulfillment of the ideal of equality, as asserted in the Declaration of Independence:
We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But 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. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.
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. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.
10. Asserting the moral imperative of gay rights. Although the right has succeeded in suppressing the rights of women and people of color, it’s widely acknowledged that in this regard, the right is on the wrong side of history. So when, in a line of great rhetorical flourish, Obama equated a famous gay rebellion against New York City police at a Greenwich Village bar with an iconic civil rights march and a catalyzing moment in the quest for women’s suffrage, he essentially said to his opponents: Your campaign against LGBT people is immoral. Here’s the line from the second inaugural address that’s destined for immortality:
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... Our journey is not complete until 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.
Alas, transgender people, it seems, will continue to wait for their day.
11. Calling for equal pay for women. I know -- not very controversial, right? Well, if you’re a right-winger, it’s a stick in the eye. Remember the Lilly Ledbetter Act, the first piece of legislation signed by President Obama? That’s the law that lifted a statute of limitations on bringing suit against an employer who was found to have evaded fair pay laws. The Tea Party had only begun to coalesce at the point, but Republicans were already sufficiently anti-woman to vote against it. In fact, only eight Republicans voted for it. Here’s Obama’s call, from the inaugural speech:
[O]ur journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.
12. Shining a light on voter suppression. Among the many ugly things for which the 2012 election campaigns will be remembered, foremost among them is the bald-faced attempts by Republican officials to suppress and subvert the votes of Democrats -- particularly, the votes of African Americans, Latinos and young people.
In his victory speech on November 7, Obama spoke specifically to that problem, saying it needed fixing. Today, in his high-minded inaugural address, the president raised the issue once again, saying:
Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.
* * *
It was a great speech. But rhetoric is easy, especially for a president so gifted in the art of oratory. Left on the table are questions, such as: What do you mean when you say you want to “save” Social Security? Or “reform” education? Or end the wars in which our nation has been mired for so long?
For all that the president had to say to the Tea Party and its allies in Congress and in the states, perhaps the most important thing is what he said to the rest of us. It amounted to a tacit reference to the (possibly apocryphal) story about Franklin D. Roosevelt, when he told civil rights and labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, who wanted him to do something controversial: “Make me do it.”
What Obama said to progressives was this:
You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.
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 in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.
Time to start shouting.