by Richard Tofel, ProPublica
As we did four years ago, we asked Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s president and author of a book on President Kennedy’s inaugural address, to provide instant analysis of today’s speech. Here are his thoughts:
In 2009, in the flush of his first election, Barack Obama declared in his inaugural address that, “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.” Today, perhaps chastened by the trials of governing and the difficulty of gaining election a second time, he did not so much acknowledge that the cynics of 2009 had been right as devote himself to trying, one more time, to move the ground beneath them.
The critical portion of the address seemed to be this: “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time… We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” Whether such a call, even with the president’s present strength and confidence, will shift the ground will be the great question of the next period in our politics and history.
The speech centered on the two fundamental American texts, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Obama quoted the heart of Jefferson’s Declaration verbatim, and then turned repeatedly, as his organizing rhetorical device, to the opening words of the Constitution: “We, the People.” By the speech’s end, seeking a call to action and perhaps a counterweight to the polarization of Washington, “we, the people” became “you and I, as citizens.”
Along the way, in addition to drawing on the words of Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr., Obama managed to reference Lincoln four times in two paragraphs, adverting to the Gettysburg Address (“government of, and by, and for the people”), Lincoln’s second inaugural (“blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword”), the “House Divided” speech (“no union…could survive half-slave and half-free”) and Lincoln’s second message to Congress (“made ourselves anew”). The one source not quoted in the speech, in a striking departure from inaugural tradition, seems to have been the Bible.
Indeed, the speech overall was more prosaic than most inaugurals. It was somewhat surprising, in this context, to hear a defense of entitlements, a disquisition on climate change, and calls for immigration reform and an end to voter suppression legislation. In all of this, Obama’s model may have been Franklin Roosevelt’s 1937 second inaugural — the first such address delivered in January — which was a clarion call for liberal politics and an attempt to cast it in the American mainstream. Sixteen days later FDR over-reached with his Court-packing plan, and his influence in domestic affairs began to ebb.
All of this reminds us that second inaugurals are harder. The lofty hopes of office-taking must give way to the sober experience of office-holding. Nearly all of the immortal words of addresses past come from first inaugurals: Jefferson’s “We are all Republicans, We are all Federalists;” Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory;” FDR’s “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself;” Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Only Lincoln’s second inaugural — “with malice toward none” — lives on in the same way.