Learning from History, Looking Forward

Ryan Higgins

On a day filled with symbolism and optimism for the future, President Barack Obama’s inaugural address set a progressive tone for his second term.  For the second time ever, the Presidential Inauguration fell on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a coincidence made even more significant with the reelection of America’s first African-American president.  2013 also marks the 50th anniversary of MLK’s historic March on Washington and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, symbolism not lost on the day as Mr. Obama was sworn in on both the King family Bible and Lincoln’s inaugural Bible [1].  President Obama tied his speech closely to history, citing MLK and repeating the words “We the People” numerous times throughout, emphasizing collective responsibility among Americans for progress [2].

Despite the rich symbolism present on January 21, 2013, it has been the content of President Obama’s speech that has received the most attention.  Several commentators have noted that this speech was among the most specific inaugural speeches in history, as he tended to cite specific policies over grand themes [3].  These policies comprise a rather progressive policy stance, leading analysts to assert that the President intends to change his leadership style: looking less for compromise, but rather focusing on leading reform.  This comes with severe time constraints, as Mr. Obama will need to accomplish the majority of his platform within the next eighteen months to avoid midterm election politics, and to hedge against the potential for the Democrats to lose the Senate [4].

Chief among the topics mentioned in the address was climate change.  President Obama swore to combat the growing global problem during this second term, stating that regardless of one’s views of the science “none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms” [5].  Though his rhetoric on climate change was less than convincing throughout the campaign, this speech indicated that it will be a central focus of the coming years.  The president’s first term attempted climate change legislation that stalled in the Senate; however, he did find success in raising energy standards and providing tax incentives for energy-efficient appliances and vehicles [6].  Environmentalists remain optimistic for progress in this policy area, particularly for possible new cap-and-trade legislation and other efforts to curb carbon dioxide emissions.

Aside from his emphasis on climate change legislation, President Obama made history today by being the first president in American history to use the word “gay” during an inaugural address, calling for equality for gay Americans and linking their battle for equal rights to the battles fought for women’s rights and the rights of African-Americans [7].  He also referenced a need for immigration reform, a promise that was also not successfully addressed during his first time [6].

Ultimately, President Obama’s second inaugural address provided the nation with a clear path forward, one full of changes and reforms to hopefully improve the country.  While the plan seems ambitious, with the consistently deadlocked Congress, Mr. Obama appears optimistic about his policies for change.


[1] http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2013/0121/It-s-not-just-an-inauguration-it-s-a-day-of-symbolism-and-stagecraft-video

 [2] http://www.startribune.com/opinion/editorials/187809881.html

 [3] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/22/us/politics/obama-inauguration-draws-hundreds-of-thousands.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0&hp

 [4] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/22/opinion/president-obamas-second-inauguration.html?hp

 [5] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/22/us/politics/climate-change-prominent-in-obamas-inaugural-address.html?hp

 [6] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/01/20/us/politics/first-term-promises-made-kept-and-broken.html

 [7] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/22/us/politics/obama-inauguration-draws-hundreds-of-thousands.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0&hp

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