January 21, 2013
President Obama delivers his second inaugural address
President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The only voice that really soared at midday was Beyonce’s, while singing the national anthem. President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address, by contrast, was flat, partisan and surprisingly pedestrian—more a laundry list of preferred political programs than a vision for a divided America and disoriented world.

Congressional Republicans are acting as if the 2012 campaign is continuing, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that the president followed suit. He gave a progressive speech that Democrats will like; he affirmed the importance of climate change and gay rights, defended by name the sanctity of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and made a pitch for infrastructure and education spending.

All worthy causes, but the speech lacked the unifying or transcendent ideas that could help Obama do much more than continue the Washington version of trench warfare during his second term. If you were hoping that the president would set the stage for a grand bargain to restructure America’s entitlement programs and fiscal health for the 21st century, you wouldn’t have found much encouragement.

Missing from the speech was the first inaugural address’s perhaps naïve dream of uniting America. This second speech seemed to accept that America is divided and, as Obama put it, “progress does not compel us to settle centuries long debates about the role of government for all time.” He called out those who would “treat name-calling as reasoned debate”—I wonder who that could mean?—but Obama’s plan seemed to be to roll the negativists, rather than try any longer to reason with them.

The area where the speech was spongiest was foreign policy. Obama reiterated his campaign theme that “a decade of war is now ending” and that maintaining peace does not require “perpetual war.” That certainly fits the mood of the war-weary nation that re-elected him. And there was a ritual assertion of internationalism, in the insistence that “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe.”

This is good rhetoric, but empty policy guidance. A listener wouldn’t have had a clue that a war is going on in Syria that has claimed over 60,000 lives, and that there is no discernible American policy to deal with it. A listener wouldn’t have known that a group called Al Qaeda still exists, let alone that it has left savage calling cards this past week in Algeria, just as it did in September in Libya.

Maybe Obama has a strategic vision for the second term. But all I heard today was a rallying cry to his supporters as they prepare for the political fights ahead.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.