WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s determinedly progressive second inaugural speech — a rallying cry to his party and a thumb in conservative eyes — lays the foundation for a fast, hard push on a new set of priorities that includes action against climate change.
The speech, perhaps more so than any of his presidency, was designed for history, to place Obama in the pantheon of his ideological heroes. It also reflected his vision of what the nation will look like decades and centuries down the line.
“The speech was both communitarian and combative,” said former Clinton strategist Paul Begala. “Gone is the airy-fairy Kumbaya of Obama 1.0. … He is advocating a much more muscular form of liberalism than he has in the past.”
Progressive leaders also celebrated Obama’s attempt to re-center American politics with a mixture of traditional rhetoric and contemporary values.
“President Obama’s brilliance is to take progressive issues — gay rights, climate change, voting rights — and make them part of core American values of opportunity, freedom, and equality,” Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden told BuzzFeed. “He also is able to make quintessential progressive values like community and obligations to each other part of moving towards America’s future, not its past.”
In five sentences Obama laid out that vision with forceful statements on gun control, voting rights, and immigration.
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” Obama said, going farther than ever before in support for gay marriage.
And the need for action to avert climate change, something Obama tried and failed to do in his first term and abandoned on the campaign trail, was the most prominent policy area of the president’s remarks, taking up eight sentences of the 2,108-word speech.
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama said. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”
The president also delivered an emphatic defense of the nation’s entitlement programs, even as he expressed openness to reform, defending them from criticism like that of his defeated Republican rival Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” line.
“The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us,” Obama said. “They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
The president’s decision to set clear, ideological targets surprised some allies.
“It was notably not just a high-minded tone poem to democracy and freedom — it was agenda-setting,” said Jonathan Prince, a State Department official in Obama’s first term.
But he said the words had a clear goal.
“It’s of a piece with what occupies their thinking — how to have a purpose-driven second term,” Prince said.
And that purpose seems closely tied to the issues that motivate Obama’s most passionate supporters: gay rights, gun control, women’s rights, and climate change.
“It made a strong case for a progressive, but inexorable, second-term agenda,” said a Democratic operative close to the White House.
The speech also appeared aimed at resetting the center of the American conversation and culture, something that has shifted gradually, and unselfconsciously, left on a set of issues over the last decade. Notably, he included Stonewall — the site of an early gay rights conflict — in the same passage as a reference to the iconic civil rights battleground of Selma, a step he took once before at a commencement address at Barnard last year.
“His passionate embrace of gay rights, for example, definitely moves the debate, taking what was an ultra left-wing position just a few years ago, and bestowing it with equal status to African-American and women’s equality,” said Begala.