Story highlights

Gordon Stewart says Obama's second inaugural speech made up for the mistakes of his first

Stewart: Obama spoke as a leader who is prepared to make choices and fight for them

He says unlike the disappointing first inaugural speech, there was no blame this time

Stewart: Both Obama's supporters and opponents have a clearer idea of what he will do next

Editor’s Note: Gordon Stewart is former deputy chief speechwriter to President Jimmy Carter and the moderator of TheNextDeal.org, an online project to revise the U.S. social contract for the 21st century.

It’s a good bet that millions of Americans on Monday greeted President Barack Obama’s magnificent second inaugural address not just with applause and cheers of approval but with loud sighs of relief.

Gone were his first inaugural speech’s bizarre equal division of blame for the wreckage of real lives between the “greed of some” and the so-called “collective failure” of the rest of us. Instead, Obama rang out his commitment to equality for all, not the “shrinking few and lucky” who call the rest of us simply “takers.”

Nor did our president chide us to put away ”childish things” by seeming to describe deep differences over “perpetual war,” climate change, immigration, equal rights, voting rights, rights to decent wages for honest labor and rights to “basic measures of security and dignity” as “petty grievances.”

Gordon Stewart
Gordon Stewart

This time around, Obama offered us not song and dance morals from an old Depression musical comedy to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again,” but solid, specific support for the serious New Deal pillars of Social Security and Medicare.

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Almost for the first time as president, he dared to utter the word “poverty” in a major address, and declared ”we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice.”

These moments and more earned his speech the warm response and respect it deserves. Now it will receive the careful analysis it cannot escape. This will reveal even more profound differences between Obama’s second inaugural speech and his historic appearance on the steps of the U.S. Capitol as the president of color few believed they would see elected in their lifetimes.

1. His first inaugural address was a puzzling disappointment after the passionate convictions he expressed so powerfully in both his primary and general election campaigns. Some suggested that his finest moment was Election Night in Chicago’s Grant Park. No one who followed his campaign, including his opponents, could have been surprised by his second inaugural speech.

2. Monday’s words were those of a leader who has chosen to fight for the change he believes in over flailing attempts to placate that only produced astounding charges that he was unwilling to compromise when in fact he had given so much in doomed efforts to do just that.

3. His repeated calls for “We the People” to work together were not-so-subtle warnings of who would be responsible if the U.S. government is unable to do so. No blame-splitting this time.

4. Even Obama’s delivery and demeanor conveyed conviction, not the sense that a press aide might soon emerge from Caesar’s tent beside the Rubicon to explain that his thinking is still “evolving.”

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In this second inaugural address, Obama the Candidate became Obama the President without a trace of the bait and switch to which too many citizens have become so accustomed that in their cynicism they cease to vote at all. He spoke as a leader who has stopped splitting differences and is prepared to make choices and fight for them – together as We the People if possible, alone as Obama the President if not.

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In fact, Monday’s speech felt as if after four frustrating years of trying to appease his opponents, Barack Obama had finally met Machiavelli one night in the Lincoln Bedroom and learned that when faced with two equally powerful opposing forces, a president must choose, or both will attack him. He sounded like a leader who knows now that the difference between making a choice and making love is that decisions don’t feel better the longer you can draw them out.

As Obama goes from celebration to celebration, his supporters and his opponents have a much clearer idea of what he will do tomorrow, and for the next 1,000-plus days he is president.

This time when he tells banks and insurance companies that “a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play,” they will do well to believe him. Because even with all the cash he collected to fill the coffers of his campaign, Monday’s speech makes it clear he will not let it line the coffin of his presidency.

It betrays no security measures to mention that the Secret Service chooses oddly accurate code words for the presidents it protects.

After Obama’s first inauguration, that could have been “dancer.” After Monday’s address, it could legitimately consider ”leader.” If the president is able to act in accordance with his second inaugural address, it’s not impossible now to imagine “Lincoln.” He wasn’t afraid to fight when the nation would not stay together.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gordon Stewart.