Words are one of the most powerful tools a leader has. For a president, the inaugural address serves as their best opportunity to harness that tool to inspire the country, annunciate a governing philosophy and crystallize their legacy as a leader.
Abraham Lincoln set the bar for greatest inaugural address in 1865—a bar few have come close to with the exception of FDR in 1933 (“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”), JFK in 1961 (“And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”) and Ronald Regan in 1981 (“We are a nation that has a government, not the other way around.”).
So, what will people say of Barack Obama’s 2013 address?
Some, like Bob Schieffer of CBS News, characterized it as “unusual” in that “there were no real memorable lines,” concluding with this truism: “I think the left will like it a lot. The people on the right; not so much.”
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As Obama’s 18 ½ minute address searches for a place in history, these are the five lines with the best chance of finding a place in text books of the future:
1.) “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.”
The first use of the word “gay” in an inaugural accompanies an impassioned—and historic—call for marriage equality. A watershed moment for the gay rights movement and a line that will likely be remembered more than any other.
2.) “For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.”
A line fitting of our divided times and of the divided future likely ahead. As we continue into the brave new world of fractured media, where the “most trusted man” ideal of Cronkite gives way to worldview affirming news sources and where political intractability is rewarded over compromise, Obama offered a call for reasoned debate and action tailored to be recalled in future times of strife.
3.) “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.”
In short, the welfare state decried by the Tea Party and called into question during the 2012 election, is here to stay. As conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News, Obama declared the “end of Reaganism.” As Obama would later say, “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.” In the Obama-era, the role of the social safety net is settled.
4.) “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.”
An issue that was scarcely mentioned in the 2012 election comes roaring back. Obama called out those who deny human contributions to climate change and pledged the resources of the federal government to fighting its advance. A moment that may be remembered as a turning point in mitigating the effects of climate change—or seen by subsequent generations as too little too late.
5.) “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.”
An annunciation of the philosophy at the core of Obama’s view of governance: that, as he said while discussing gun control last week, “the only way we can change is if the American people demand it.” After failing to offer the grassroots engagement of the 2008 campaign a meaningful role in the policy battles of his first term, Obama is making clear his second term will be different. Change now, as always, comes when the silent many find their voice.
In all, Obama's second inaugural address was comprised of 2,114 words--slightly shorter than the 2,404 of his first in 2009.
What’s your take? What lines, if any, do you think history will remember?