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Essays, Quick Takes, States of Exception

The Problem with “Together” in Obama’s Second Inaugural Address

Four years ago, Barack Obama presented himself as offering a new style of politics. His first inaugural address promised a post-partisan administration. He began by laying out problems facing the nation: high healthcare costs, failing schools, wars, and a collapsing economy. The choice of candidate Obama represented “hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” Reconciling and reimagining would be the themes of his presidency. Politics had been dominated by “petty grievances and false promises” but now, citing Scripture, Obama announced that “the time has come to set aside childish things.”

Obama’s only foe, in his first inaugural address, was the cynic, one who resists the possibility of reconciliation, one who clings to partisanship. The end of slavery and segregation demonstrated that reconciliation is possible, and offers a promise for reconciliation between Christians and Muslims. At the same time, Obama called for ambitious government projects, including new support for roads, electrical grids, and alternative energy. The challenge of Obama’s first administration was reconciling the moral message of reconciliation with the concrete goals he set out.

Over the past four years, the federal government has, indeed, invested in infrastructure, alternative energy, and health care. But the moral message of reconciliation has fallen flat; the partisanship of Washington seems stronger than ever. The concrete achievements of the first Obama administration were likely reduced by blending the moral and the concrete, by prematurely seeking middle ground. More significantly, governing resulted in a tension between reconciliation and reimagining, between listening to many voices and speaking in a new voice that shifts the conversation. What most frustrated liberals was that Obama seemed capable of the latter but focused on the former.

Reconciliation is not the centerpiece of the second inaugural address. Instead, a moral vision is more closely tied to policy prescriptions. The centerpiece now is togetherness. It was together that our past challenges could be overcome, and it is only together that our current challenges can be faced. Together we can care for the elderly and disabled, together we can cope with natural disasters, and together we can address climate change. Togetherness is framed as the opposite of tyranny, whether it is the tyranny of the king or the tyranny of a minority. Where reconciliation brings conflicting sides together, togetherness assumes that we are already on the same side. And on that side is government, our togetherness institutionalized. The first inaugural rejected the question of “whether government is too big or too small” as childish; the second inaugural frames government as an extension of our collective identity.

In both speeches, freedom is presented as a gift of God. But in the second speech, securing God-given freedom means opposing “the privileges of a few.” In the second speech, the oath of office, “to God and country,” creates a loyalty beyond that owed to political parties. It is not an obligation to bring parties together; it is an obligation to our togetherness, to our collective humanity.

What was missing from Obama’s recent speech was an acknowledgment of the myriad ways togetherness can be distorted by the privileges of the few, the myriad idols claiming our loyalty. There was no mention of the extent to which media are controlled by multinational corporations, or the influence of big money in elections, or the pathologies injected into the political system by the gun lobby, or the fossil fuels industry, or the Israel lobby. Faithfulness to our collective humanity requires both working together and vigorously resisting those who have us mistake their interests for our own.

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