“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,” Obama told the crowd stretching before him from the Capitol. “For now decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay.”
Obama’s second inaugural address served as an epilogue to his first, which was defined by its surprisingly stern tone. The occasion then was the historic swearing-in of the nation’s first African American president, but Obama chose instead to prod what he called a country “in the midst of crisis.”
With more than 150,000 U.S troops fighting two wars and a teetering financial system, Obama urged his audience to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” He said setting aside partisanship and other “childish things” would be part of a national rehabilitation.
On Monday — with one war over, another ending and the economy slowly growing — Obama echoed some of the same broad themes, including the need for the nation’s political leaders to act in common cause to prepare the country for a rapidly changing world.
But he did so with more partisanship and populism than he did on a far colder day four years ago. The more optimistic tone and specific ambition of the speech reflected not only the country’s halting progress over that time, but also his own evolution as a political leader in a divided country.
“What I was struck by was how much more committed to an agenda he seems to be than he was in the last inaugural,” said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian who attended a dinner with Obama at the White House earlier this month to talk about second-term strategies. “Now he’s going to push what he believes in.”
Indeed, the caveats and compromises that Obama included in his first inaugural to appease leery Republicans were almost entirely absent from the arguments he made this time. He offered instead a list of liberal solutions that he intends to pursue, part of what one senior adviser described as “a project of advocacy on behalf of the middle class.”
As Obama said pointedly: “For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”
Speaking on the national holiday celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr., Obama also invoked the civil rights movement as the rationale for his priorities throughout the 181
2-minute address, arguing that climate change, immigration reform, gun control, and equality for gay men and women represent the civil rights concerns of his generation.