As someone who had a little fun at President Obama's expense with a slight rewriting of his first inaugural address over the weekend, I will not be so indecorous as to skewer his second inaugural address in as rough a manner. A few thoughts on the speech and pomp and circumstance and commentary, however:
1) The build-up to the speech demonstrates the blind spots that occasionally hobble our political class. All long weekend I've heard that good second inaugurals are rare or inconsequential (save Lincoln's, of course). This demonstrates a remarkably short-term memory. I'm not George W. Bush's biggest fan, but his second inaugural address was both significant in policy implications and lyrical in its use of rhetoric. If political commentators can't parse the difference between a good speech and good policy, what chance do they have of providing any enlightenment about what's to come in politics?
2) As for Obama's rhetoric, on the whole, I'd say this was both a more confident and relaxed speech than his first inaugural -- and a measure of the ways in which the country has changed in the past four years. His use of "we the people" was an effective trope and highlighted some trends that sometimes get lost in DC obsessions about the right-wing backlash to Obama. The simple fact is that over the past four years Americans have become significantly more tolerant of each other, particlarly with respect to gays and lesbians. Obama was smart to place this in a broader inexorable march towards less discrimination and greater civil and political rights in the United States. At the same time, Obama also did not shy away from his progressive economic message. We'll see how well that goes moving fowards.
3) As for the foreign policy section of the speech... meh. Here's the biggest paragraph:
We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear. America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation. We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.
This is pretty boilerplate, in my book. Nothing new, nothing particularly soaring. It almost read as if it was a placeholder for better text. In that, this speech was a marked contrast to Bush's second inaugural, which was principally about foreign affairs.
4) That said, the most significant foreign policy implications in this speech weren't in that paragraph, but earlier:
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’s 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.
I don't know if this will translate into concrete policy achievements, but it's interesting that Obama put it front and center in this speech. It's also interesting that, like Bush, he used religious imagery and religious authority to make the case for addressing climate change as an urgent national imperative.
5) Finally -- and I know this is gonna be controversial -- but I'm gonna say it anyway: Kelly Clarkson outsang Beyonce today. I would not have expected that going in. I suspect Beyonce might have had some technical difficulties. While they are both excellent singers, on nine out of ten days I'd expect Beyonce to outclass Clarkson. But not today. Not today. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is a tougher song than "My Country Tis of Thee," but still.
That said, my favorite pop rendition of a patriotic song is embedded below:
What did you think?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.