Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Significance of Obama’s Inaugural Address

Published in Commentary on January 21, 2013



President Obama’s inaugural address was eloquent and moving in parts. It was also deeply partisan and polarizing, something that is unusual for a day normally devoted to unity and common purpose.

But not in Barack Obama’s America. In his inaugural speech he did what he seemingly cannot keep himself from doing: portraying himself and his followers as Children of Light and portraying his opponents as Children of Darkness.

You are either with Obama–or you are with the forces of cruelty and bigotry. In Obama’s world, there is no middle ground. He is the Voice of Reason; those who oppose him are the voice of the mob. They are the ones who (to cite just one passage from his speech) mistake absolutism for principle, substitute spectacle for politics, and treat name-calling as reasoned debate.

In that sense, Obama is the perfect president for our current political culture. And for all of his self-perceived similarities with Abraham Lincoln, he is the antithesis of Lincoln when it comes to grace, a charitable spirit and a commitment to genuine reconciliation. Mr. Obama is, at his core, a divider. He seems to relish it, even when the moment calls for a temporary truce in our political wars.

Which leads me to my second point.

Mr. Obama’s speech was not a call to unity; it was a summons to his liberal base to fight–on global warming, for gay rights, for gun control, for renewable energy, and for a diminished American role in world affairs. And the president’s speech also signaled that he will oppose, with passion and demagoguery, anyone who attempts to reform our entitlement programs. He is fully at peace with running trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. He not only won’t lift a finger to avoid America’s coming debt crisis; he will lacerate those who do.

A final point: Mr. Obama’s speech was a highly ambitious one intellectually. What he was attempting to do was to link progressivism to the American political tradition, to the vision of the founders and the Declaration of Independence. “The greatest progressive arguments throughout the country’s history have been rooted in the language of the Declaration of Independence,” Michael Waldman, who was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton, told the Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent. “This speech was really rooted in that tradition.”

The key to understanding the president’s inaugural address, then, was this line: “Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words [from the Declaration] with the realities of our time.”

Mr. Obama views himself as America’s bridge, the modern-day interpreter of Washington, Madison, and Jefferson. Mr. Obama’s agenda is their agenda. Or so says Obama.

Mr. Obama is a Man of Zeal. He believes the currents of history are swift, powerful, and on his side.

What we are seeing is the authentic Obama, a liberated and fiercely committed progressive who believes he is an agent for social justice and fairness. He feels the election completely vindicated him and his agenda. He has sheer contempt for his opponents. And in his second term he will crush them if they stand in his way.

Call it the transmogrification of Hope and Change.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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