WASHINGTON — Barack Obama, the United States’ first black president, was sworn in for a second term on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, with a forceful inaugural speech.
In a throwback to his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech, Obama began his second address with broad and unifying themes.
“What binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names,” he said. Rather, he added, American unity originates from citizens’ allegiance to the ideas set forth in the Declaration of Independence — the inalienable rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
As the speech went on, however, it took a turn for the practical. Obama outlined specific policy goals — including action on gay rights, climate change, immigration reform and social safety nets — while justifying them in terms of “a call to live up to timeless ideals,” political science professor John DiIulio said in an email.
Obama’s rhetoric reaffirmed his commitment to marriage equality for gay Americans — a view that he announced publicly in May. “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” he said. “For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
His words came against the backdrop of an angry protestor who climbed up a tree on the National Mall about 300 yards from the podium to shout anti-gay slogans.
Political science professor Rogers Smith said he would not be surprised if Obama leads an effort to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman. However, the law may be overruled in the courts before it could be repealed in Congress.
Obama has previously voiced his disagreement with the law, and in July his administration requested that the Supreme Court hurry its review of DOMA.
Smith also noted Obama’s allusions to Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address — which emphasized the importance of finishing the Civil War in a way that created a completely free nation, despite the cost in blood.
The references to Lincoln — along with others to King — drew parallels between racial civil rights struggles and the fight for gay rights, Smith said.
“I think the speech already represents him pushing for gay rights more than he has previously,” Smith added.
Political science professor Marc Meredith also thought that while Obama will “likely push for an agenda that includes improvements in gay rights,” most measures would come from the judiciary.
While the president renewed calls for gay rights, a new agenda also emerged through the course of the speech. Obama argued that the United States should be at the forefront of addressing climate change rather than lagging behind.
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” he said, sarcastically noting that action is necessary despite the fact that “some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science.”
The emphasis on climate change is a shift from past policy pitches. The issue received almost no attention during the 2012 campaign, save a mocking reference by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention. Meredith said that the first time he heard serious talk about climate change during the election season was in Obama’s acceptance speech — in which he devoted a single line to the topic.
“It certainly was not the issue I would have thought would be most likely to show up [in the speech],” Meredith said. The fact that Obama mentioned the issue in his speech Monday may indicate a shift in priorities, he added.
Notably absent from specific policy proposals was anything directly addressing gun violence. While Obama is pushing a package of reforms he announced last week, the only reference to gun violence was a mention of Newtown, Conn. — the location of a mass shooting in December — which brought several seconds of complete silence over the crowd of nearly a million.
Smith speculated that because the ball is already rolling with regard to gun violence, Obama may have chosen to highlight other priorities.
The union of broad ideals and specific policy items set this address apart from other second inaugural addresses, DiIulio noted.
“Many second inaugural addresses are essentially high-minded policy speeches,” he said. “This address was a civic blueprint for America’s future and a call to live up to timeless ideals.”
Central to that blueprint is a call for “collective action in the public interest,” DiIulio said.
Although the speech may have deviated from traditional second inaugural addresses, Smith saw it as typical of Obama.
“He invoked what have always been his core themes: that we should understand the American constitutional system as an ongoing quest to realize more fully timeless principles,” he said. The challenge, he added, is to turn the rhetoric into action.
“He was seizing the moment at the beginning of his last term in national office to make sure from day one he’s pushing to get his big items done,” Smith said.