Obama’s speech and the legacy of liberty

In 2009, faced with a country caught in an economic crisis and unrealistic hopes for his presidency, Barack Obama had to lower expectations with his inaugural address. In this year’s speech however, he was free to say what he wanted. This time round the president did not have to watch or weigh his words, knowing that he will never face voters again. With no chance of re-election in four years time, Obama was able to reveal his true ideologies, and place himself firmly with the liberal left.

Barack Obama - Concrete

Obama has been accused by Republicans of being overly partisan with his address, which has been widely regarded as an unapologetic defence of liberal politics. His second-term inaugural address issued a call to action: to embrace a liberal agenda, and to reclaim the spirit of the founding fathers from conservatives.

Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie complained that “instead of trying to bring people together, it was a manifesto for, “Hey, it’s my way or the highway”, while House Speaker John Boehner claimed that the president’s rhetoric was proof that he was on a mission to “annihilate the Republican Party”.

In contrast to his 2009 inauguration speech, where Obama expressed hope of working with Republicans, he appeared ready to confront them and to give up efforts towards bipartisanship.

With the repeated refrain of “we the people” throughout his speech, Obama attempted to disprove the right-wing interpretation of the constitution that has governed the United States throughout history. Instead he argued that the founding fathers did not intend the country to become enslaved by the constitution, and called for collective action to enable the country to live up to its founding principles.

The inauguration was shrouded by reminders of America’s racial history. The country’s first black president was re-inaugurated on Martin Luther King Day and 150 years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. A Latino Supreme Court justice swore in the vice-president; a gay Cuban-American was the inauguration poet laureate; a civil rights icon whose husband was murdered for seeking equality delivered the inaugural prayer; all while a man with a Kenyan father, a Kansan mother, the middle name “Hussein” and an Indonesian childhood was taking the oath of the presidency for the second term. While this may not be an image all Americans embrace, Obama took the opportunity to remind his country of the events which unite and bind them together.

Obama declared the most evident of truths, “that all of us are created equal”, to be the star that has guided America throughout history. While acknowledging his support for same-sex marriage and tighter gun control laws, Obama made reference to the events of Seneca Falls, Salem and Stonewall. Seneca Falls was the sight of the first women’s suffrage convention in 1848, Selma was a major catalyst for the Voting Rights Act which ended the disenfranchisement of African Americans, and the Stonewall riots marked the start of the modern fight for gay and lesbian rights.

In name-checking the significant moments of the women’s rights, civil rights and LGBT+ equality movements in his speech alongside the refrain of “we, the people”, Obama positioned these events as deeply embedded in the American narrative, actively writing these groups into the country’s history.

Obama will be hoping to use the next four years to establish a legacy that goes beyond simply being the first African-American president. His speech reminded Americans of the founding principles of the country – the individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness declaring, “What makes us exceptional – what makes us American – is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago.” In his second inaugural address, Obama made very clear that he will spend his second term to trying to make this a reality for all Americans.


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September 2021
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