Like I said in the first post in this series, Obama didn’t waste time talking to Republicans in his inaugural address because he didn’t need to talk to them. President Obama’s biggest accomplishments in his first term happened without their support and despite their opposition. And even though Republicans did everything within their power “make Barack Obama a one-term president,” Obama won re-election with a bigger margin of victory than either of our most recent two-term presidents.
Republicans complaining that Obama didn’t speak to them are missing or ignoring major cultural and demographic shifts in the electorate, and focusing instead on how best to turn back time.
What Do You Mean “We”?
Instead of talking conciliation to the very conservatives who tried and failed to stop him from taking the oath of office a second time, President Obama talked past them. Instead of appealing to the same right-wingers who obstructed his first term and promised to do the same during his second, President Obama went over their heads, and spoke directly to the people who helped him win a second term — the diverse coalition of voters who comprised a new majority in the 2012 election.
There’s a famous Nathan E. Birdwell/Joe Orlando comic from the 1960s that kind of sums up the difference between previous inaugural speeches, in which the newly-elected or re-elected chief executive “reaches out” to the opposition party with lofty-but-vague promises of “bipartisanship,” and the kind of speech Barack Obama delivered at his second inauguration. In the comic strip, which appeared in Mad magazine in 1958, as the Long Ranger and Tonto are fleeing a pursuing band of of “Indian Braves”, they have a brief exchange that became one of the most repeated and recycled jokes in decades (even by Pulitzer Prize winning economists).
The Lone Ranger and Tonto are watching a horde of Indian braves bear down on them in full battle fury. “Looks like we’re in trouble, Tonto,” says the Lone Ranger to his pal. “What you mean ‘we,’ white man?,” Tonto responds.
According to some numerical breakdowns of the inaugural address, and my own quick search after copying and pasting the text into Microsoft Word, Obama used the word “we” about 68 times in his speech. He used the word “together” about seven times, and repeated the phrase “we the people” about five times. By comparison, he said “I” about four times, and then only in the last two paragraphs of his speech.
What exactly did Obama mean by “we” in his speech? Who does he include in “we the people”?
As I wrote a couple of years ago, Washington is a town populate almost entirely by two kinds of people: “People Who Matter” and people who don’t.
After 15 years of living and working in Washington, D.C., the idea that there are “people who matter” and its corollary that there are then “people who don’t matter,” are at the heart of why so much in this town comes down to what I call “the least worst option.”
Whether it’s equality, energy, the economy, health care or any number of issues — the core question is the same: Who can we afford to leave out? Who can we afford to exclude? Who can we write-off? Who can we sacrifice? Who can we vote off the island? Who can we sacrifice for our own sake? Whose votes can we take for granted? Whose money can we count on after this vote?
Who are the “somebodies” and who are the “nobodies”? Who are the “people who matter” and who are the “people who don’t matter?”
Obama’s inaugural address was definitely not aimed at the usual “People Who Matter” in Washington.
Most of the 68 times Obama said “we” during his speech, he wasn’t talking to or about the members of Congress. Nor was he addressing the House GOP leadership, Senate Republicans, or any other conservative policymakers or pundits. He wasn’t addressing the people that he, as a Democratic president, might be expected to address with the obligatory words of conciliation and compromise on the occasion of his second inauguration; which they used every trick in the book (and invented a few new ones) to prevent. He didn’t even pretend to extend an olive branch to those who showed every sign of obstructing his second term agenda as much as they did his first.
That’s because the Obama’s second inaugural address was aimed at an entirely different group of “People Who Matter” — and who are likely to matter even more in the future than they did in 2012.
Thus, it was a rather startling speech for those long accustomed to everyone acknowledging them as the “People Who Matter.”
People Who Matter
In the Doonesbury comic strip for February 28, 2008, a college professor quotes Barack Obama’s first inaugural address to pose a question that’s even more relevant to his second inaugural address:
You see, the challenges we face will not be solved with one meeting in one night. It will not be resolved on even a Super Duper Tuesday. Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. We are the hope of those boys who have so little, who’ve been told that they cannot have what they dream, that they cannot be what they imagine. Yes, they can.
The line “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” had a long life in literary, feminist, and progressive circles long before then candidate Barack Obama used it to reach voters. It was first written by poet June Jordan, who died of cancer in June 2002, in “Poem for South African Women,” from her 1980 collection entitled Passion. Since then it has taken on a life of its own. It has been set to music by the vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and borrowed by author Alice Walker as for the title of a collection of spiritual essays.
What made that sentence one of the biggest applause lines in Obama’s first inauguration, even for those who may not have heard it before, is the same thing that caused so many to take them to heart in the decades since Jordan penned her poem. The words are imbued with a sense of empowerment that speaks to people who have historically little very little power, sometimes even over their own fates. Obama referenced that theme again and again in the 2008 campaign.
Though he did not repeat that phrase in his second inaugural address, or repeat his 2008 campaign slogan, Obama touched on the same theme and spoke to the same constituency. He spoke to the diverse coalition of “people-who-have-never-mattered-before.”
But in 2012 that coalition forged a new majority that not only gave his a second term in office, but will almost certainly continue to change the face and focus of our politics, and the content of our discourse.
“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek,” candidate Barack Obama said in 2008. At the time, his comments came in for criticism: They were narcissistic; they were tautological; they didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
But in the aftermath of Obama’s 2012 reelection and his second inaugural address, his 2008 remarks seem less a statement of self-absorption than one of prophecy. There is an Obama majority in American politics, symbolized by Monday’s throng on the Mall, whose existence is both the consequence of profound changes to our nation’s composition and values and the cause of changes yet to come.
That majority, as the president made clear in his remarks, would not exist but for Americans’ struggles to expand our foundational belief in the equality of all men. The drive to expand equality, he said in his speech’s most historically resonant line, “is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.”
…The Obama Majority — its existence and mobilization — is what enabled the president to deliver so ideological an address. No such inaugural speech has been delivered since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, demanding the curtailment of government programs and secure in the knowledge that much of the white working class had shifted its allegiance away from the Democrats and supported his attack on the public sector and minority rights. On Monday, Obama, secure in the knowledge that the nation’s minorities had joined with other liberal constituencies to form a new governing coalition, voiced their demands to ensure equality and to preserve and expand the government’s efforts to meet the nation’s challenges. As he left the stage, he stopped and turned to marvel at the crowd, at the new American majority they represented. They were the ones he, and we, were waiting for.
At his second inauguration, Barack Obama simply addressed “People Who Matter,” and who proved their power to confound pundits and chart the course of the nation in this election, and may prove more powerful in elections to come. For the GOP and its base, that’s a “startling” possibility.