Michael Grunwald heard little new in the president’s speech:
Obama has governed as a left-of-center pragmatist, and I see no evidence from his rhetoric that he intends a different approach in his second term. He did make a strong pitch for climate action, but he did that in his first inaugural, too, and then he followed up with strong climate action. He did make a strong pitch for gay marriage, but he’s been doing that for the last year. Anyone who thinks that Obama never talks about alleviating poverty or training science teachers or building research labs or reducing inequality or equal pay for equal work has never heard Obama talk.
Noam Scheiber disagrees:
[Y]ou could argue that there wasn’t much new in Obama’s speech if it reflects an m.o. he adopted well over a year ago. But I disagree. Since his emergence on the national scene, Obama has clung to the Eisenhower-era distinction between campaigning and governing: You make your case during election season, then take down the TV ads and stump speeches when it’s over so you can get on with policymaking. Before today, it was possible to believe Obama still clung to that distinction.
Those are not words intended to invite Republican cooperation, but to slam Republican non-cooperation; not to conciliate, but to confront. They were fighting words, and they portend a second term in which the president is fully as willing to take the fight to his opponents as they have been to take the fight to him.
The encouraging thing about this relative neglect of foreign policy in the address is that it suggests that foreign policy in the second term won’t be an extremely ambitious or ideologically-driven one. Bush’s Second Inaugural promised a foreign policy that was both of these things, and to the extent that the Bush administration pursued the goals outlined in that address it managed to cause a great deal of harm. We will have to hope that Obama’s boilerplate in the speech is evidence that he intends to eschew grand projects overseas in the next four years.
Freddie puts Obama’s historical examples in context:
During Obama’s speech, for which he is receiving the typically polar response, he name checked the Stonewall riots, Selma, and Seneca Falls. What’s worth saying, not so much in regards to Obama but to the liberals who zealously defend him, is that Martin Luther King was adamantly opposed to gradualism, and as Ned Resnikoff pointed out, those events of resistance represent the rejection of the political process due to the urgency of profound oppression. Gradualism has become the cudgel with which liberal Democrats beat left-wing critics, and the partisan political process is advanced not merely as the most important route to change but as the only valid route to change. To ask for change in the face of injustice and suffering is to be called naive and sanctimonious; to advocate resistance that transcends voting once every four years is to be called a traitor. Yet the man who we celebrate today, and the events referenced by the very president who is defended in those terms, speak to the profound poverty of conscience that resides in the doctrine of the lesser evil.
And Benjamin Dueholm addresses Obama’s rhetorical style:
[T]he respect for the audience implicit in these moments is rare in a politician of any stature. You, America, can get your mind around truths that are self-evident but not self-executing. You can handle the irony of uneven and unreliable progress. You won’t get angry at hearing big words.
It’s unlikely that the next president, whatever his or her party, will attempt anything like this. People are understandably a little fatigued at the Obama style. Even I am, at this point; it courts decadence to dwell so determinedly in the examples of the past and to praise the nation so constantly in such unqualified terms. But it is very probable that friend and foe alike will end up missing this, at least a little bit.