Talking points on Obama's speech

Seven key moments in the president's inaugural address

1. Surprisingly strong emphasis on climate change

I spoke recently with a Canadian politician who remarked that the words “climate change” had not come up in the presidential campaign. I noted that Hurricane Sandy, which hit at the very end of the campaign, has since changed the context and the public conversation in the U.S.. Today, Obama devoted a surprising amount of attention to the issue:

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. 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 path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries—we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure—our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

What will that broad statement add up to in the context of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives? Regulations out of the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at reducing emissions from power generating plants, especially coal-burning plants, are the most likely outcome. And the fiscal cliff negotiations preserved some tax breaks for renewable energy. Obama has also nominated a new Secretary of State, John Kerry, who has been an advocate for climate change policy and is expected to take a more aggressive role in international climate talks. What all this means for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline remains to be seen. In his first press conference after the campaign, Obama said he’d be doing more on climate change, but added, “If the message is we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s going to go for that.”

2. Emphasis on gay rights
No president has ever spoken so explicitly about gay rights in an inaugural speech. Obama set New York City’s  Stonewall riots of 1969—which helped galvanize the gay rights movement—in the pantheon of iconic moments in the American civil rights movement, such as voting rights marches and women’s rights convention:

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebearers through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”

The president only last May came around to publicly endorsing same-sex marriage—and more than half of U.S. states ban it in their state constitutions. But today Obama declared:

“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.”

3. A retort to the Tea Party

Obama made a case against the kind of rugged individualism preached by the Tea Party movement, painting it not only as impractical in the face of modern social problems—but also tried to make the case that it is a misinterpretation of American history. He said:

“…We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.”

4. Combative tone

If his first term began with talk of bipartisanship, his second term begins with a rather pointed rebuke at conservative hard-liners in Congress:

“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”

5. Setting the stage for budget battles

Obama made a moral case for preserving social programs as he embarks on budgetary negotiations with Congress—and mocked the Republican language of “takers versus makers”:

“We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But 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. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other—through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security—these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

6. Managing expectations

Obama is unlikely to accomplish many of his goals – such as an assault weapons ban, for example, because of opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. He made the case for trying:

“We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence…”

Contrast that statement with the grand ambition he articulated in his first inaugural speech in 2009. Back then, he said: “Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply.”

7. The permanent campaign

The speech was notable for its repeated use of  “we” and “we the People.” It was more than a rhetorical flourish.  Obama’s political team has made it clear that they plan to tap into the massive grassroots organization that they assembled for the campaign, in order to use it to press his policy agenda in the next four year. Obama ended his speech with a call to his supporters to lend him not just “the votes we cast” but also “the voices we lift.” His second term will mark an attempt to tap into the grassroots much the way the Tea Party movement mobilized against the government bailouts and health care legislation ahead of the 2010 mid-term elections. He made the case to his supporters to stay engaged in politics and help push his agenda the way they organized for his campaign victory:

“You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time—not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”

“Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”

Indeed, not long after the president had finished speaking, an email under his name went out to his former campaign supporters:

“Dear [Supporter] –
I just renewed my oath of office to serve as your president for four more years. Thank you for making this possible. It’s an honor to be your president. Now, it’s time to finish what we started – let’s get going.
P.S. Organizing for Action is the next step in our grassroots movement and will be crucial to finishing what we started. If you have already, say you’ll be part of it.
(That last sentence links to Organizing for Action which “will support the legislative agenda we voted on…”)