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.”