The inauguration speech: Obama’s “come and have a go” moment

Since December's school shooting in Connecticut, the President's voice has a new edge to it - a hardness, a determination, an aggression and a volume.

You can read the full text of Obama's inauguration speech and watch the video here

In the freezing cold, in front of 800,000 people lined along the Mall which stretches from the Capitol Building to the Washington Monument, President Barack Obama gave his inaugural address. He seemed very small and very human, dwarfed against the Capitol Building and the crowd – smaller than 2009's several million people, but still sizeable – but his voice, amplified a thousand-fold, boomed with what sounded like renewed vigour: this was a new President.

Sitting near the front, I could turn around and hear and almost see the President's voice as it travelled outwards in a wave, its echoes coming decreasingly back to me as the voice spread further from speaker bank to speaker bank. When he paused, the silence spread out the same way; the President watching it spread, enjoying the entropy.

The view down the Mall from the Capitol Building as Obama was sworn in for the second time. Photograph: Getty Images

His voice had an edge to it, that new edge that it's had only since December's school shooting: a hardness, a determination, an aggression and a volume; though it was also as rhetorically polished as we've come to expect, steeped in historical cliché and rising patterns of pairs – “blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword,” “youth and drive; diversity and openness,” and so on.

Though echoes of terrible gunfire could be discerned behind Obama's new-found anger, echoes that ring from Connecticut, guns and gun control were themselves notably absent from the speech. Only an oblique reference to the shooting – “our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm” – hinted that anything was different at all, though the President has outlined his legislative agenda on guns already a few days ago.

Other divisive issues were notably present, though: by no means was this an inaugural address of platitudes. Obama seems to be looking to pick fights even this early in his second term. First came a long passage about climate change. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” said the President. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgement of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms,” has already set the deniers yapping. Step forward James Delingpole, of course, who in this particularly strange piece of writing entitled “Obama declares war on reality” appears to compare himself to Galileo.

This was not the only “come and have a go” to conservative talking heads, however. In fact, this was a pretty bullish speech all around. Here is Obama jabbing at his Republican opponents, both in Congress and in last year's presidential race: “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” Ouch.

More important was Obama's vow to take action on gay marriage; the first time the issue has ever been mentioned in an inaugural address. “...Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” Probably the most important line in the speech, this is a solid mandate and signal that executive action on the issue may well be to follow.

After the speech was over, Beyoncé sang the Stars and Stripes with extraordinary gusto, and it clearly mellowed Obama's mood into nostalgia. As he turned to leave the stage, the President turned and gazed back out at the crowd. “I want to look out one more time,” he said to the secret service detail trying to hurry him along. “I'm not going to see this again.”

President Obama steps out onto the platform in front of the Capitol Building for his second inauguration. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear