Inaugural analysis

Obama offers domestic roar, foreign policy whimper

President dedicates a 287-word tangent to global affairs, suggesting the US will tread lightly and raising questions about previous pledge to do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop Iran

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

US President Barack Obama gives his inaugural address on the West Front of the Capitol in Washington, January 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Rob Carr)
US President Barack Obama gives his inaugural address on the West Front of the Capitol in Washington, January 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Rob Carr)

NEW YORK – President Barack Obama was sworn in to a second term before a crowd of 800,000 in Washington on Monday, far fewer than the 1.8 million who attended the first inauguration in 2009, but still the second-largest event ever held at the capital’s National Mall.

The centerpiece of the event was not the swearing-in, but rather the president’s inaugural speech. The legally required oath of office had already been taken on Sunday, as mandated by the Constitution.

Presidents have traditionally used the speech to signal their priorities in the upcoming term. Monday’s speech was a battle cry for the Democratic vision of a problem-solving federal government. From health care to climate change, from praising Social Security and Medicare as symbols of a healthy society to expanding funding for education, Obama vowed to move ahead on strengthening the country’s federal programs.

“For now decisions are upon us,” he said, “and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.

“No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores,” he continued. “The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

His language was most combative on the threat of climate change, suggesting a strategy of painting his opposition as backward and unreasonable. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science,” he went on, “but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.”

As he laid out a confident, even confrontational domestic agenda for his second term, the absence of anything similar on foreign policy was especially glaring. Indeed, the foreign policy section of the speech lasted just 287 words out of 2,095, including rhetorical flourishes about “conscience,” “the marginalized” and “tolerance and opportunity.”

In what many will interpret as a thinly veiled critique of those espousing greater American intervention around the world, he insisted the American people “still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”

While America will remain “forever vigilant against those who would do us harm,” he said, “we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.”

What does that mean?

America will prefer engagement. “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”

America will favor multilateral institutions. “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation.”

Within an hour of his public swearing-in, Obama signed his first acts of the new term: the formal nomination of his future secretaries of state, defense and the treasury, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and Jack Lew respectively.

Kerry and Hagel have long resisted calls for more robust interventionism in American foreign policy. Hagel is expected to oversee a massive cut to the Pentagon’s budget, and Kerry a renewed commitment of the United States to global institutions and multilateral agencies.

In language and personnel, the message is clear. America will tread more lightly in the world in the coming four years.

The day after Obama’s inauguration, Israel is expected to reelect its own Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said the threat from Iran will define his legacy and the future of his country. Israel will be watching, together with other Middle Eastern powers, as America restructures its presence in the region. And Israelis will be asking a question that Obama’s domestic rhetoric has only made more murky: Will the US come through on its promises of uncompromising opposition — employing “whatever it takes” — to head off an Iranian nuclear weapon?

Obama’s first foe: Apathy

Domestically, Obama’s combativeness is not a sign of strength, but of the need to mobilize an increasingly frustrated and apathetic electorate behind his agenda.

Obama’s November victory makes him the first Democrat to win two elections with more than 50 percent of the vote since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s, and a Washington Post/ABC News poll suggests a relatively high 55% of Americans approve of his job performance. But the president’s likability has not reversed a steady rise in frustration among Americans at the gridlock in Washington.

Voter turnout among eligible voters in 2012 was 58.9%, the lowest in three presidential election cycles. Congress is polling at 15.2% approval, according to the RealClearPolitics average. Even in victory, Obama’s 65.9 million votes actually represented a drop of over 3.5 million votes from 2008. And while voter turnout declined, the seven-point Democratic lead in 2008 was cut nearly in half to 3.9% in the Obama-Romney contest.

Republicans fared poorly, and lost. But Democrats did not gain ground among the American electorate. Instead, all parties saw a decline in enthusiasm and interest.

Even as he projected victory and combativeness, Obama seemed aware of these realities.

“‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,’” he quoted from the American Declaration of Independence, “‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’”

But, he warned, “history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing.”

Only in collective action, he told tens of millions of viewers, can rights and prosperity be secured.

On Friday, Obama’s election campaign staff announced the formation of Organizing for Action, a group unconnected to the Democratic Party — and therefore unrestricted in its fundraising — that will seek to mobilize the president’s supporters to push for his policy and legislative agenda.

“If we can take the enthusiasm and passion that people showed throughout the campaign and channel it into the work ahead of us, we will be unstoppable,” wrote Obama’s most recent campaign manager Jim Messina in an email to the campaign’s donors.

Headed by Messina and Jon Carson, until recently of the White House’s Office of Public Engagement, Organizing for Action marks an attempt to replace the declining power of traditional mobilizing groups, such as labor unions and advocacy organizations. And most pressingly of all, to get the vote out in the contest for control of the Republican-held House in 2014 and holding on to a Democratic White House in 2016.

On wage disparity for women, gay rights, immigration, “we must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial,” Obama told the American people on Monday.

“You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course,” he declared. “You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time — not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”

Correction: This article has been changed to reflect updated and more accurate eligible-voter turnout figures.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed