Obama inaugural address: The full liberal

So I guess the guy can still draw a crowd, Sure, it wasn’t like last time, but nothing was like last time. Last time we had a crowd of, what, 17 billion? I’ll never forget walking the length of that crowd, keeping moving so that I wouldn’t turn into a block of ice, and how everywhere I looked there was another army of people, surging here and there, not just on the Mall proper but on the side streets and across the bridges and down in tunnels and in sewers and God knows where else. Last time, we had us an inauguration that we’ll tell our grandkids about. This time? Good crowd. Huge, really, by any standard except 2009′s.

And although it was cold, it wasn’t frostbite cold, wasn’t even see-your-breath cold. Just, you know, let’s-not-talk-too-long cold. It was cold enough that, up there on the platform, the various performers and speakers and the president himself went through their paces with great efficiency, such that we were several minutes ahead of schedule. This was a brisk inauguration.

I arrived fashionably late and  didn’t even make it to my assigned section, choosing to call an audible to get as far away as possible from the guy bellowing about abortion (“Hurricanes will come!” was one of his prophesies). I’m not the type of person who measures his self-worth by where he sits, or stands, at an inauguration, though ideally I’d like to sit with the Clintons. I’d like to be close enough so that, when the Chief Justice says “Raise your right hand and repeat after me” I reflexively do just that. “Confusingly close” is what you call that kind of proximity.

Oh, and the best moment was surely when Obama paused at the West Portico and said — and I’m reading lips here — something to the effect of “Hold on, I want to take this in one last time.” And he stood there just inside the portico and looked out on the crowd. I timed it (later, watching TV) and got 24.5 seconds. He surveyed the crowd and looked very satisfied — or perhaps moved, or awed. Lots of people power there. Which was a theme of the speech, it turned out.

It wasn’t a great speech. It didn’t have much in the way of memorable rhetoric, to my ear. See my story from today’s special section: I think Obama still has unfinished oratorical business.

In the speech [transcript here], Obama decided to go full liberal. You could call it partisan, but I’d say it was more ideological than that. This was Obama explaining his philosophy, a progressive philosophy, in the context of historic American ideals, going back to the nation’s founding document. In citing the famous words near the beginning of the Declaration, he set himself up for one of his better lines: “history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing.”

What I think we saw today was a statement of what he believes — his core philosophy. Just as he did the other day in outlining his actions on gun control (see the end of my story on Obama’s oratory). He’s not running for anything anymore. He can say directly, and repeatedly: This is what I believe. This is who I am.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · January 18, 2013