President Obama in Inaugural Address: ‘We Must Act’

Danny Hayes, assistant professor of political science, analyzes the president’s address.

Danny Hayes
January 23, 2013

In his second and final inaugural address on Monday, President Barack Obama offered some hints as to what his next four years in office might look like.

Danny Hayes, a George Washington University assistant professor of political science, talked with George Washington Today about the themes the president wove through his address and what they may mean for the commander-in-chief’s second-term priorities.

Q: Was this a different Obama than the one we saw four years ago on Inauguration Day?
A: When he gave his first inaugural address in 2009, Obama was essentially still a candidate. That speech touched on many of the themes from his 2008 campaign. Among them, he proclaimed “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

Monday’s speech seemed to signal he might have tabled that aspiration. Instead, the president declared that “we must act” to solve various national problems, even if it means not everyone will agree how we do it. I think that shift underscores how hard President Obama has found it to achieve candidate Obama’s goal of transforming Washington.

Q: What themes echoed through the speech? Do you agree with some who say that Obama struck an “unapologetic” tone as opposed to the relative optimism he expressed four years ago?
A: The strongest theme throughout the speech was a call for a renewed American liberalism. He emphasized the importance of a broad middle class, the need to strengthen entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, and the imperative of protecting the rights of minorities. The speech was certainly unapologetic in that the president was attempting to lay out a vision of what he thinks America should look like, not strike a compromise with those who disagree with him.

Q: What hints did Obama give as to what his second-term priorities would be? Does a second-term president in some ways have luxuries a first-term president doesn’t?
A: Not surprisingly, he made reference to gun control and immigration, issues that have been at the top of his second-term agenda for several weeks. But I didn’t expect to hear him mention climate change, given the likely difficulties of getting significant movement on that issue in Congress.

Second-term presidents have an advantage if other Washington policymakers perceive them as possessing a mandate by virtue of their re-election. (Whether they actually have one is another matter entirely.) But the honeymoon usually ends pretty quickly. And while not having to run for another term gives presidents some additional leeway to pursue their goals regardless of the politics, they still have to worry about taking action that might hurt their party.

Q: Particularly prominent in the speech was civil rights, which Obama said includes equal rights for blacks, women and, notably, gays. What did you make of this, and how it will shape term two?
A: This was as significant a moment for gay rights as when Obama announced his support of same-sex marriage last May. At the same time, we’re seeing changes in public opinion. The most recent surveys put support for same-sex marriage around 50 percent. And because young Americans are the most favorable, the politics of same-sex marriage in the coming years augurs well for gay rights advocates.

Q: Immigration, gun control, the debt, climate change, entitlements, infrastructure investment, tax reform—can Obama do it all his second term, or does he need to make some choices on what he can realistically accomplish in his final four years in office?
A: It’s easy to articulate an ambitious agenda. It’s a lot harder to achieve it. Because of the ongoing fight over fiscal issues, spending and the debt ceiling, Obama won’t be able to tackle all of these any time soon. He will probably need to prioritize and figure out what he can realistically get through Congress. For all the bipartisanship and bonhomie that characterizes Inauguration Day—and it is a truly important intermission—it won’t last long.