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 reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Getty
Show Hide image

Chuka Umunna: Why tolerance is not enough

Against the Trumpification of politics.

It’s still spring, yet 2016 already stands out as one of the ugliest years in modern British political history. It was fantastic to see Londoners choosing hope over fear in May, electing Sadiq Khan as our first Muslim mayor. But David Cameron, having shamelessly endorsed Zac Goldsmith’s dog-whistle campaign tactics, owes those young Muslims who have been put off politics by the slurs hurled at Khan an explanation. How does racial profiling and sectarian scaremongering fit into his One Nation vision for Britain?

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, one of the best bets to succeed Cameron as our next prime minister, embarrassed Britain on the world stage with a racially charged allusion to Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage. And my own party has been grappling with a swath of deeply disturbing revelations regarding the attitudes held by some on the left towards Israel and Jewish people. Sowing discord by stigmatising or scapegoating a single faith group or community is profoundly at odds with the British tradition of “tolerance”, but we can’t ignore that this year’s events are part of a rising trend of friction and factionalism.

Last year’s general election should have been a wake-up call. The political and cultural divides between people living in the north and south and urban and rural areas – as well as between working-class and metropolitan sensibilities – appear starker than ever. In May’s devolved elections, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politics became yet more distinct – giving the impression of a kingdom coming apart at the seams. All the while, more and more voices in our national politics seek to pin the blame for the challenges facing our country on a single section of society, whether immigrants, Muslims or another group.

This trend stretches beyond our borders. From Ukip, the French Front National and Austria’s Freedom Party to Podemos in Spain and Italy’s Five Star Movement, new populist parties of the right and left are on the rise across Europe. In the United States, Bernie Sanders is tapping into the energy of Occupy Wall Street, while Donald Trump has emerged as the heir to the Tea Party: a poster boy for division and recrimination.

Trump’s rise should be a warning for us Brits. The New York Times commentator David Brooks has described his success as less indicative of the emergence of a new school of thought, or movement, and more of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Trump’s campaign has tapped into a complex cocktail of grievances, from the loss of manufacturing jobs in a globalised economy to rising inequality and raw anger felt by many white working-class Americans at demographic and cultural changes.

In the run-up to last year’s general election, as I travelled around the country, I was confronted time and time again with the reality that in the UK – just like in the US – people are afraid and angry because the world is changing in ways they fear are beyond their control. Where once they had believed that, if they worked hard, they would get ahead, too many Britons now feel that the system is rigged in favour of those born into opportunity and that those in power have abandoned them to a broken future. What it means to be British seems to have shifted around them, triggering a crisis of solidarity.

We are at a crossroads and may face nothing less than the Trumpification of British politics. In an uncertain and changing world, it is all too easy to imagine that our problems are caused by those who are different from us.

If we wish to follow the fine example set by Londoners on 5 May and choose unity and empathy over division and blame, we must accept that simply “tolerating” one another will no longer do. There is an accusation built into the very word: what you are doing is “other” or “wrong”. As Britain has become more diverse, we have come to know each other less. This makes it harder to understand how people from different walks of life feel about the big issues.

I am a Labour member because I believe, as it says on our membership cards, that, by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more together than we do alone. In order to develop the bonds of trust required for this to become a reality, and for our communities to flourish and our democracy to deliver for everyone, we must build a society in which people from all backgrounds actually get to know one another and lead interconnected lives. In this sense, “One Nation” – the land over which all parties seek purchase – should become more than a platitude. It should become a way of life.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad