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President Barack Obama speaks at the ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

Opinion roundup: Obama's inaugural address

  • Article by: Various writers
  • January 22, 2013 - 7:44 PM

The following is a roundup of responses to President Obama's inaugural address.

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 Michael Gerson, Washington Post:

Polarization has deep roots. What can a presidential inaugural address do to oppose the centrifugal forces? Probably not much.

This year, however, the influence of such a speech remains untested, because it was not attempted. President Obama proceeded to define an agenda that could have been taken from any campaign speech of the 2012 election. Those who oppose this agenda, in Obama's view, are not a very admirable lot.

For Abraham Lincoln, even the gravest national crimes involved shared fault. For Obama, even the most commonplace policy disagreements indicate the bad faith of his opponents. In his first inaugural address, George Washington described the "sacred fire of liberty." In his second, Obama constructed a raging bonfire of straw men.

This approach has serious drawbacks if a president is called to play a leadership role in reforms that require both parties to trust each other and take simultaneous risks. On the evidence of his second inaugural, Obama has moved beyond such idealism.

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Sacramento Bee Editorial Board:

The speech, with its themes of inclusion and equality, befit a president who won with support from women, minorities and young people. He made clear no one can succeed alone, saying that safety-net programs "do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."

The president took office in 2009 amid two wars and an economy in collapse. The economy is stable, though hardly robust, and the president noted that a "decade of war is now ending."

"My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it -- so long as we seize it together," he said in a call to action to help bring about his vision.

There is plenty of room to debate the policies of the 44th president. But the second inaugural speech by this son of a Kenyan, who was raised by his single mother and by grandparents from Kansas, would have made Martin Luther King Jr. proud. Now he must follow through.

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John Dickerson, Slate:

In 2009, Obama's inauguration was a civil-rights turning point. In his 2013 inaugural address, he sang the song of America's civil-rights progress. He talked about how the growing support for the rights of women, African-Americans and gays affirmed the essential promise in the Declaration of Independence.

What Republicans heard was a tone poem from the president to growing government. If a Republican president had been speaking, there would have been paragraph after paragraph about tackling the deficit. Obama barely mentioned the deficit. When he did, it was to warn against excessive spending reductions.

This partisan edge is in keeping with the new freedom the president is feeling. He doesn't seem to be in a schmoozing mood.

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Washington Post Editorial Board:

The president described a second-term agenda of unusual specificity for an inaugural address: immigration reform, including more visas for engineers; voting reform; gun control; preservation of the nation's entitlement programs; investment in highways and other infrastructure; more worker training; equal pay for women; revamping the tax code to combat inequality, and more.

Facing up to the challenge of climate change received unusual and welcome prominence in the speech. So did the struggle for gay rights.

Less welcome was the reappearance of one of Obama's favorite rhetorical companions, the straw man: "We reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future." The implication was that entitlement reform means abandoning the older generation. In fact, the country can safeguard its most vulnerable elderly while investing in children -- but not without restructuring Medicare and Social Security. Obama recommitted himself, as he has uncounted times, to making "hard choices" to reduce the deficit. But he again offered no clue as to what those might entail.

If that suggested a bit of wishful thinking, another sentence suggested a barrelful: "A decade of war is now ending," Obama pronounced. That would come as news to the Afghan soldiers still dying at Taliban hands; to the families of more than 60,000 people killed in Syria in the past two years; to French soldiers who have taken on, in Mali, Al-Qaida affiliates who are as much enemies of the United States as of France, to the families of American hostages just slain in a terrorist attack in Algeria. America's adversaries are not in retreat; they will be watching to see if the same can be said of the United States.

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Kansas City Star Editorial Board:

Obama's speech offered a bold restatement of many of his priorities, including a free market with rules that ensure "fair play," and a nation that cares for the vulnerable and offers unlimited possibilities to all. He offered a subtle but needed defense of the good that government can accomplish.

He issued a clear entreaty for Americans to demand action from Congress, not uniform agreement. As he said: "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."

The nation is watching and hoping for debate that will not repeat the discordant recent history of budget and deficit arguments.

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Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post:

Obama's speech was a liberal's call for big government. Those liberals who were certain that Obama would move to the center in the second term are no doubt elated.

But this is good news for the Republican Party as well. If the president really wants only more government and international retreat, Republicans can unify in common determination to keep the country from sliding much farther to the left.

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David Brooks, New York Times:

The best inaugural addresses make an argument for something. Obama's second one, which surely has to rank among the best of the past half-century, makes an argument for a pragmatic and patriotic progressivism.

During his first term, Obama was inhibited by his desire to be postpartisan. Now he is liberated. Now he has put his liberalism on full display. Those who agree, those who disagree and those of us who partly agree now have to raise our game. We have to engage his core narrative and his core arguments for a collective turn.

Obama misunderstands this moment. The Progressive Era, New Deal and Great Society laws were enacted when America was still a young and growing nation -- vibrant, raw, underinstitutionalized and in need of taming.

We are no longer that nation. We are now a mature nation with an aging population, bogged down with a bloated political system, a tangled tax code, a byzantine legal code and a crushing debt.

Obama made his case beautifully. But I'm not sure he rescrambled the debate. But at least the debate is started.

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(Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer Editorial Board:

As wars end and an economic recovery seems to be gaining momentum, Obama's call for a renewal of faith in all that democracy can mean is important.

Now that peace is more likely in some places, the president has to hope he can maintain peace elsewhere, meaning for now Iran. His foreign policy must be firm, to be sure, but in his first term, Obama has greatly improved America's image and position overseas, and thus has strengthened our connection with allies.

The president made it clear in his speech that he believes in strength, but that "We the people still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require a perpetual war."

Now the task for a man who would be a peacetime president, abroad and at home, will be to try to bring his partisan opponents, to the table for constructive action and not perpetual stalemate. A new term has begun. The people have spoken. They expect to be heard.

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New York Times Editorial Board:

President Obama argued eloquently for a progressive view of government. In the coming days, there will be no letup of political combat over the debt ceiling, gun control, national security, and tax policies that can either reduce income inequality or allow such inequality to stifle economic growth and opportunity for all but the very wealthiest.

But, on Monday, the president stepped back from those immediate battles to explain what it means in the broadest sense to be "we the people."

Obama is smart enough to know that what he wants to achieve in his second term must be done in the next two years -- perhaps even in the first 18 months. It is pointless to wait for signs of conciliation from the extreme right, whose central ideology is to render government ineffective.

It's natural for a second-term president to be thinking about his place in history. There is no doubt that Obama has the ambition and intellect to place himself in the first rank of presidents. We hope he has the political will and tactical instincts to carry it out.

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Michael Kinsley, Bloomberg View:

So Obama does have a vision. Society, through its proxy, the government, should provide the individual with a higher level of protection from hardship and catastrophe than it does now. Even global warming and the deficit get shoehorned into the framework of problems the government must deal with so individuals can be free to live their lives as they choose.

The president said, "This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience." It has? If so, it sure caught me napping. I think we are fairly untested, and it's hard to share the president's optimism. But he gets paid to be optimistic.

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Frank Bruni, New York Times:

Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall. The alliteration of that litany made it seem obvious and inevitable, a bit of poetry just there for the taking. Just waiting to happen.

But it has waited a long time. And President Obama's use of it -- his grouping of those three places and moments in one grand and musical sentence -- was bold and beautiful and something to hear. It spoke volumes about the progress gay Americans have made over the four years since his first inauguration. It also spoke volumes about the progress that continues to elude us.

The causes of gay Americans and black Americans haven't always existed in perfect harmony, and that context is critical for appreciating Obama's reference to Stonewall alongside Selma. Blacks have sometimes questioned gays' use of "civil rights" to describe their own movement, and have noted that the historical experiences of the two groups aren't at all identical. Obama moved beyond that, focusing on the shared aspirations of all minorities. It was a big-hearted, deliberate, compelling decision.

He went on, seconds later, to explicitly mention "gay" Americans, saying a word never before uttered in inaugural remarks. What shocked me most about that was how unshocking it was.

 

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