By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — President Obama began his second inaugural address with a reminder that this ceremony, like the 56 inaugurations before it in U.S. history, was a unifying symbol.
“Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution,” he said from the West Front of the Capitol, his voice echoing across the Mall, where hundreds of thousands of people waved American flags. “We affirm the promise of our democracy.”
Thus ended the warm-courage-of-national-unity portion of the proceedings.
What followed was less an inaugural address for the ages than a leftover campaign speech combined with an early draft of the State of the Union address. Obama used the most visible platform any president has to decry global-warming skeptics who “still deny the overwhelming judgment of science.” He quarreled with Republicans who say entitlement programs “make us a nation of takers.” He condemned the foreign policy of his predecessor by saying that “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” the president informed his opponents.
Not that they were listening.
George W. Bush declined to join former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter at the ceremony (Bush’s father missed it, too, although he has been in poor health.) Mitt Romney sent regrets and, it appeared, the vast majority of House Republicans skipped the proceedings as well.
With Republican citizens also shunning the event, the crowd gave huge cheers for liberal favorites — John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, the Clintons, Sonia Sotomayor — and hardly a peep when Lamar Alexander, a Senate GOP leader, gave a magnanimous speech about the moment, “our most conspicuous and enduring symbol of the American democracy … this freedom to vote for our leaders, and the restraint to respect the results.”
Obama’s main event was full of crowd-pleasing lines about equal pay, same-sex marriage, poll access, immigration, gun control and health care. Although it tied together the various elements of his agenda, it failed to rise to the moment.
The president read from the founding documents (“We hold these truths to be self-evident”), echoed John F. Kennedy (“This generation of Americans has been tested by crises”), and even tossed in a Neville Chamberlain phrase (“peace in our time”) and some Hallmark sentiment (“Embrace with solemn duty, and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright”). However, the emphasis was unusually political for an inaugural address. Obama reminded his opponents that his oath of office, “like the one recited by others who serve in this Capitol, was an oath to God and country, not party or faction.”
But if the speech wasn’t as grand or as memorable as previous addresses, perhaps that’s not entirely a bad thing. In his first term, Obama was undone by impossibly high expectations. This time, expectations are quite low that he can do much to change the grim state of Washington. With a lower hurdle to clear, Obama’s pedestrian rhetoric and tough words for his opponents gave Americans a fair sense of what to expect in the coming years.
The lower altitude fit the day well. The crowd was big and enthusiastic — a sea of red, white and blue flags extended several blocks — but nothing like the euphoric celebration of four years ago. High clouds blocked the sun and a cold wind chilled the spectators. Chief Justice John Roberts got the oath of office right this time, although Myrlie Evers-Williams, in her invocation, declared Obama the 45th president (he remains the 44th).
Capping the less-than-historic feel of the moment, “American Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” “Wow,” said the emcee, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., when he returned to the microphone.
There was less wow in the address that preceded Clarkson. Obama teased the crowd with a theme of unity: “Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.” But his “we the people” theme turned out to be more of a campaign retread. “We the people understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” he said. “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.”
And we the people accept that we live in an era of diminished oratory.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.