President Obama’s inaugural speech: Exceptionalism with a view

In the months leading up to last fall’s presidential election, even Obama’s supporters mourned his lack of a vision for the next four years. They haven’t taken much consolation from developments since then, despite the moment of unity over the shootings in Newtown, and the rhetorical uplift of the second inaugural address. At first glance, that speech seems merely to confirm the President’s conventionally liberal intent on multiple fronts: the war in Afghanistan, immigration, health care and education reform, climate change and social justice. Republicans see little or no effort at the bi-partisan solidarity the President had announced—perhaps naively—in his first inaugural address.

And yet, the form of engagement that he at one point calls “collective action” does surface repeatedly in the speech: so, if not a bridge across the aisle in Congress, what collectivity does the President have in mind?

Wittingly or unwittingly, he has offered a return of what he learned to repress during his first term in the White House. One would expect any presidential hopeful or president-elect to display significant patriotic boosterism. Yet in the lead-up to the first term and again now, Obama sounded a different note, one consistent with his cosmopolitan birth and upbringing and suggestive of a new American exceptionalism.

No sentence in the second inaugural says it better than this one, inviting us back to a future on the world stage: “For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.” At first glance merely a swipe at the National Rifle Association, Obama’s history lesson morphs 18th-century colonial resistance to oppression into Anglo-American and other Allied collaboration during World War II and the half-century that followed, and then into multilateral undertakings in the 21st century.

We must do so, he continues, “not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice.” This is the language of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document familiar to our peers in developed countries from high school on, but not often taught in the U.S., despite Eleanor Roosevelt’s key role in seeing it promulgated.

Dreams from My Father revealed family circumstances that took Barry Hussein Obama outside the bell jars of affluence that most Americans know abroad, and that persisted as he pursued an education in Hawaii and eventually on the U.S. mainland. In a country that favors liberty over equality in roughly inverse proportion to the rest of the world, the President argues that “the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still.”

Race in America plays a central role in Obama’s second inaugural address, too, but his Martin Luther King, Jr., dons the President’s internationalist mantle: “our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.” King’s commitment to non-violent direct action does not comport with the Obama administration’s reliance on drone strikes, but that differential may be a measure of how far we have come on the subject of race in America; and Obama’s argument for internationalist mutuality still honors that legacy.

Like the Birthers and the detectives of Obama’s Muslim identity, the political pundits who complain about his lack of vision use a vocabulary derived from local politics to naturalize and then cast him out. Yet Obama is already both a citizen of John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” and one who sees it from the plain of the familiar Earth; for his second term, the President offers exceptionalism with a view, enabling significant cultural change on the major issues of the day.

Leigh Hafrey is a Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Ethics.


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