Every inaugural speech, it seems, must check certain boxes.
There should be lofty rhetoric that dignifies the power of the moment (in Obama’s address, he referred to “the constants of our character” and “blood drawn by lash, and blood drawn by sword”). There should be references to our forefathers, to history and to great figures of the past (“no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half slave, and half free”). And there should be quotes from those great documents that guide our nation, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (“we hold these truths to be self-evident”).
But the most important test an inaugural address should pass is how well it paints the president as the leader of the entire United States, rather than the leader of a political party. If there is any presidential moment that calls for consensus over politics, for civility over partisanship, for consequence over pettiness, it is this one.
So how well did Obama pass that test? Some are sure to say he failed it. The president gave what some pundits called a “surprisingly liberal” speech, with a historic reference to gay rights (“our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law”), a beautifully alliterative call-out to “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall,” and a surprisingly lengthy appeal to action on climate change. There were references to voting rights, to peaceful ends to global conflict, to Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security. This was a speech, many said, that only a second-term president unconcerned about future elections could give.
And yet, the president carefully—and wisely—cloaked all those progressive ideals in the tri-cornered hats and powdered wigs of our forefathers. “The patriots of 1776,” Obama said, “did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few.” It is “up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.” He even got in a reference to conservatives’ oft-repeated concept of American exceptionalism: “What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago.” As no less a conservative than National Review editor Rich Lowry tweeted during the speech, “he couched liberal activism in a conservative-sounding rhetoric” of the founding fathers.
To me, however, Obama’s best efforts to sound like a leader speaking for the entire country came at the end. And he did this not by trying to bridge the divide between Republicans and Democrats, or between liberals and conservatives, but between the presidency and the people. “The words I spoke today,” he said in closing, referring to his oath, “are not so different from the oath that is taken each time a soldier signs up for duty, or an immigrant realizes her dream. My oath is not so different from the pledge we all make to the flag that waves above and that fills our hearts with pride.”
You have also taken this oath, he is saying. You share this responsibility. I can’t do this alone—I need your help. “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course,” Obama said. “You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time, not only with the votes we cast, but the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideas.”
This is a common refrain for Obama, one that we have heard on campaign stops and in speeches ever since he stepped on to the national stage. It is a reminder, unheard by so many, that as much as we may rightfully complain about our leaders’ divisiveness and partisan ways, we too have a responsibility to change that discourse. So perhaps if the president, at the onset of his second term, cannot reduce the divide between Republicans and Democrats, he can at least shorten the distance between the presidency and its citizens.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.