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Obama's change in tone

The cautious Barack Obama is gone as the president delivers his second inauguration speech.
Last modified: 23 Jan 2013 03:50
Obama used his speech to lay out his vision of change on immigration, climate change and other issues [Reuters]

They’ve begun to dismantle the security barriers and fences, the grandstands and risers, and slowly Washington is getting back to normal.

The roads are open, so the traffic snarl-ups can’t be blamed on the inauguration. And people are openly grateful Tuesday’s bitter and biting cold did not arrive the day before.

Barack Obama is back in the Oval office. A two-term president who knows the influence is time-limited.

Four years ago more than 1.8 million people gathered on the National Mall - the ground that links the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Memorial and the Capitol building - to witness the historic inauguration of America’s first black president.

This time around, the numbers were down substantially. There may have been up to 800,000 there, not a small number but perhaps a true reflection of the limited expectation of what Barack Obama could do.

He arrived in Washington four years ago. He brought a message of hope; that America could rebuild itself, shake off its serious economic issues and see Republicans and Democrats work together despite deep ideological issues.

Perhaps he brought incredibly high expectations and suffered when he could not deliver. American politics has never been more polarised, emphasised by the few Republicans on show. Obama’s predecessor George W Bush wasn’t there - his father is recovering from illness. Mitt Romney, the defeated candidate in November’s election, declined to attend, as did many Republican members of Congress.

That perhaps informed the speech Barack Obama made at his second inaugural. This was not about addressing a common political agenda or seeking compromise. Emboldened by a comfortable election win and the knowledge he would never have to seek election again, this was about his vision of America. A declaration he would lead.

And as such that’s why this felt less of a historic moment in time, with soaring rhetoric and memorable lines and more like an early draft of his State of the Union speech.

He invoked the preamble to the US constitution, returning to the line "We the people", which served as a none-too subtle reminder that in the contest of ideas and philosophies, he carried a majority in the election.

He presented an unashamedly liberal agenda, and was cheered heartily by the crowd on the Mall, who waved their flags furiously as they watched on the big screens.

He talked about climate change, and immigration, equal pay and pensions and without actually uttering the words, gun control. These are all areas which would excite his core supporters.

The cautious Obama was gone, perhaps exemplified most by his historic use of the word "gay". For a man who until recently wasn’t sure of the idea of same-sex marriage he insisted: “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.” He compared the struggles of gay-rights activists to those who pursued votes for women or civil rights.

What was missing was any detailed discussion of the economy, of America’s growing debt and the slow drop in unemployment. What was missing was mention of the war in Syria and the risk that presents to the region, of the challenges ahead as the US prepares to leave Afghanistan. And what was missing was a sense of how Obama could deliver such grand and sweeping changes when many of those in Congress will continue their obstructionist stance to any idea he proposes, no matter the merits.

Barack Obama has laid out his plans for the next four years, the changes he wants to bring and the legacy he wishes to leave. The clock is ticking.