Coffee House

Obama’s left-wing inaugural address

21 January 2013

Obama’s second inaugural address was probably one of the most left-wing speeches he has made since the Democratic primaries in 2008. It hit all the liberal notes, from women’s equality to climate change and gun control to welfare. But thanks to the President’s trademark combination of poetry and weight, it didn’t come off divisive or aggressive.

That’s because Obama pegged the political positions to principles that cut across partisan divide: chief amongst them, the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.’ Take, for example, his call for same-sex marriage: ‘if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well’.

And in the most beautifully-written section he wove that principle through the struggles for civil rights for women, African-Americans and gay people:

‘We the people declare today that the most evident of truth that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.’

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The speech wasn’t just pitched on equality – home turf for the left. Throughout the speech were instances of Obama reclaiming for the left a concept that has, of late, more often been claimed by the Tea Party: freedom. ‘Preserving our individual freedoms,’ he proclaimed, ‘ultimately requires collective action.’ And boldest of all, perhaps, was his defence of entitlement programmes as tools to free people:

‘The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative. The strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great.’

But while affirming his commitment to liberty, he jetted individualism with a return to his ‘You didn’t build that’ refrain:

‘For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world be acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. 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.’

Above all, the speech was a call to action – the likes of which Obama specialised in during his 2008 campaign:

‘Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing.’

Continuing that journey, Obama said, will involve equal pay for women, equal marriage for gay couples, reducing the queues at voting booths, reforming immigration and, of course, tackling gun violence:

‘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.’ 

Those, then, will be the challenges Obama turns to in his second term – as well as climate change, which he touched on too. (‘We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.’) For more specifics, tune in to his State of the Union address on 12 February.

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Show comments
  • Tom Burroughes

    I suppose the Spectator wants to show how broad a church this publication is by publishing this sort of fawning review of what even the writer admits is one of the most left-wing speeches in recent years. As Stanley Kurz of National Review, the US publication, has written, Obama is clearly a socialist, and his policies are likely to prove a disaster for Jefferson’s Republic, although on the issue of gay marriage, I take the libertarian approach in that the State should not be in the business of regulating marriage in the first place.

    Rgds, Tom Burroughes, London.

  • Boudicca_Icenii

    He’s peaching Socialism to “the land of the free.”
    I wonder how long it will take them to catch on that “land of the free” and socialism are incompatible. Socialists always run out of other peoples’ money.
    Watch Obama start to impose gun control ….. an armed nation might fight back!

  • Tom Tom

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” Words written by hypocrites at the time – “men” being a closely defined term

  • an ex-tory voter

    It is a very serious situation.
    Obama represents a clear and present danger to the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He is constructing a nation of welfare dependants with the express purpose of using them to destroy the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. These are possibly the most important documents ever written, not just for America but for all nations. They protect American citizens from an over mighty state and their impact is felt right round the globe. They are the foundation on which the American dream was built and without the protection these documents provide freedom and liberty will disappear in the USA, just as they have done here in the UK. The very existence of these freedoms and the resultant economic power of the American people shines as a beacon to all oppressed and over governed nations. We should all be very concerned about the danger which Barack Obama poses to us all.

  • Colonel Mustard

    When “liberals” talk about individuality and freedom there is always a “but” and the big state. When they talk about equality it is always with a qualification of identity groups and fellow travellers, the majority being silent and silently unremarked.

    • Dimoto

      You can carp about the detail and “hidden meanings”, but I thought it was a very well crafted speech (for an inauguration remember), exceedingly well delivered.

      • Colonel Mustard

        I did not mention any detail or “hidden meanings”. My comment was a generalisation about “liberals” (once known as socialists) not an analysis of Obama’s tediously predictable rhetoric and trigger word list.

  • williamblakesghost

    We love Obama we do, we love Obama we do, we love Obama we do, O-bama we love you.

    “Oh Obama we are not worthy……”

    He’s just another political failure. Now do please excuse me but I need to go in search of a bucket…..

  • Theodoxia

    America deserves better than a politician whose principle strength seems to be his ability to read from an autocue (OK, he can read from an autocue and sound angry). Four more years of non-achievement are in store.

  • Roy

    Him quoting the Declaration of Independence yet him and his cohorts have condemned this as interfering with his agenda. It is the one brick wall that has stalled him – for the time being – on his march to bring the US to a planned irrevocable socialist state. He persistently speaks echoing the words of his opposition, as if to deprive them of their identity as he parrots the well known phrases. He can only speak of his true agenda in carefully constructed form understood only by his top colleagues.

  • Jebediah

    Oh please. You and the BBC have such a teenage crush on news from America and Obama in particular. Is it as simple as “because they speak English too?” If not will we get similar coverage of Merkel if she wins the next German election, or Singh if he wins India’s?

    • David Lindsay

      They both matter far more to us.

      • Jebediah

        That’s why I gave them as examples… so, er… ok.

        • David Lindsay

          They also both matter far more *than* us to the Americans.

          • Jebediah

            India certainly… Germany maybe? Economically powerful, militarily useless. Probably nets out.

            • David Lindsay

              Oh, no, America has regarded Germany as the main European ally for most of the post-War period, and certainly regards her as far more important than Britain.

              • Jebediah

                Ah now you see that’s an assertion.

                • David Lindsay

                  Not at all. It is axiom to anyone who knows anything.

                • Jebediah

                  An axiom? How marvelously arrogant and needlessly insulting. What a great guy everybody must think you are.

                • David Lindsay

                  They do, rather, yes.

                  And it is. What makes you think that it is not?

                • Jebediah

                  No it’s an unprovable assertion. I suggest you apply yourself to understanding what axiom means.

                • David Lindsay

                  Don’t. Because you won’t win.

                  Evidently, since you are completely ignorant of the basics.

                • Jebediah

                  Mr. Lindsay,
                  You claim an axiom, but are unable to prove it. (The burden of proof is on you as the person making the extraordinary claim). If it is disproved or just unprovable it cannot be an axiom. Now grown ups realise that other people can have different opinions, and they can do this without insulting, threatening or spitting the dummy.

                • David Lindsay

                  Point proved.

                  Your Daddy cannot sack or evict me. Yes, there really are people in the world to whom he can do neither of those things. Oh, look, your head has just exploded. Tiresome when then happens.

                • Jebediah

                  Mr. Lindsay

                  Are you hallucinating? “Your Daddy cannot sack or evict me. Yes, there really are people in the world to whom he can do neither of those things.” Are you answering the wrong point? Can we expect further entertaining non sequiturs from you?

                • David Lindsay

                  And again.

                  Oh, I am enjoying this. I really should stop. It is becoming faintly indecent.

                • Jebediah

                  Mr. Lindsay.
                  But you can’t stop can you? Because you pathologically cannot accept that people will disagree with you. When the argument is lost you move into non sequiturs and insults. Probably at some level you know this, probably people have told you this before. I don’t think you need help, but the diminishing number of people willing to listen to your diatribes must be worrying.

                • David Lindsay

                  It would be, if it were not the opposite of the case.

                  You only came across “non sequitur” for the first time today, didn’t you? That is why you cannot stop saying it. Bless.

                • Jebediah

                  Ah more insults. But no attempt to answer or refute my point, which was made fairly clearly above. So why the insults, seriously, why go that route. It’s hardly likely to convince people of your points.

                • David Lindsay

                  Aaaand, she’s back.

                  Give it up, luv. Give it up.

                  But you won’t. Will you?

                • Jebediah

                  So you’ve given up being a grown up all together then. You have my pity. Have a lovely evening.

                • Noa


                  David’s postings are a perfect example of why one should never mix the grain with the gripe.

                  Let’s hope his head is better today

              • Tom Tom

                Not true. The Elysee Treaty was signed by Adenauer to express his fury at the US for allowing the Berlin Wall – it was a deliberate tilt away from the US which is why JFK rushed to Berlin in 1963 weeks after the treaty was signed

            • Tom Tom

              The British and Americans wanted Germany to be “militarily useless” and worked very hard to impose that on them

    • dalai guevara

      *when* she wins…

  • Curnonsky

    Pass the sickbag, Alice.

  • Chris Morriss

    I was going to comment on this sycophantic article, but having got to the end of it, I now feel far too nauseous to manage it.

    • Jebediah

      Agreed. About as one sided “I wuv him” article as I ever seen. Jones must have posters on his bedroom wall… what a sycophant.

  • David Lindsay

    As long as you do not actually call it by the
    S-word, then America has always been rather good at Socialism. The only America that
    anyone now alive can remember is the land of big municipal government, of
    strong unions whose every red cent in political donations buys something
    specific, of very high levels of co-operative membership, of housing
    co-operatives even for the upper middle classes, of small farmers who own their
    own land, and of the pioneering of Keynesianism in practice.

    In stark contrast to our own Premier League, the
    National Football League maintains the equal sharing out of ticket and
    television revenue, and there is still the hard salary cap for players, as well
    as the very extensive welfare provision. The 2011 Super Bowl champions, the
    Green Bay Packers, have a not-for-profit model of community ownership which has
    had to be banned from spreading for fear that it would otherwise prove so popular.
    The Packers have never moved out of a Midwestern city of only 102,313 people as
    of the 2000 census. The National Basketball Association and Major League
    Baseball more than do their bit, too. In all three cases, displaying the name
    or logo of a commercial sponsor on the kit would be considered the very height,
    or depth, of sacrilege.

    America still had enough Faith, Flag and Family
    by the 1980s to restrain neoliberal economics then and subsequently. We did
    not, so we could not. Comparing their giant sporting interests to ours makes
    the point. God Bless America. Games that still begin commonly with the Lord’s
    Prayer, and which invariably with the National Anthem, could never become what
    their counterparts have become here in a country where many people probably no
    longer know the words to the Lord’s Prayer and where most people now alive have
    probably never known all of the words to the National Anthem.

    That is the America which long led the world in
    protecting high-wage, high-skilled, high-status jobs, both against the
    exportation of that labour to un-unionised, child-exploiting sweatshops, and
    against the importation of those sweatshops themselves. Until very recently,
    that America led the world in “not seeking for monsters to destroy”. Once the universal
    public healthcare option has come to be, everyone will say that it is as
    American as apple pie. As, indeed, it is. ObamaCare is in fact less Socialist
    than the scheme that was proposed by Richard Nixon.

    That is America, the most successful example of
    non-Marxist, and where necessary anti-Marxist, Socialism in the world. No one
    alive can remember America as anything other than that. The only thing missing
    was universal public healthcare. And even that has now been taken care of. So
    much so that the last Presidential Election was between the man who delivered
    ObamaCare and the man who delivered RomneyCare, with no opponent of the
    principle on the ballot. Romney, remember, was the choice of millions of
    registered Republicans. Well, of course he was.

    • Span Ows

      Still waiting for you to show two far right on Any Questions, you can’t just tell lies and run away on the Internet.

      • David Lindsay

        There are always two right-wing figures on Any Questions. And on Question Time. Every week. Give me the list of panellists from any given week and, since apparently you don’t know, I will tell you which ones they are.

        • Span Ows

          No, you are the one claiming stupidities; tell me who you think are the two far right panelists; it should be easy, you say it happens every week so I would have thought – being so sure and all that – that you could remember at least ONE week.

          • David Lindsay

            Last week’s Question Time, the Chairman of the Conservative Party and the Leader of UKIP. Plus Roland Rudd. And, as ever, David Dimbleby of the Bullingdon Club. The furthest Left was the staunchly Blairite Caroline Flint. Standard fare.

            Last week’s Any Questions, Oliver Letwin and the Chairman of UKIP. Plus a strongly pro-Bush former Foreign Editor of The Times. And Jonathan Dimbleby. The furthest Left was the staunchly Blairite Ben Bradshaw. Standard fare.

            Everyone who knows anything about the subject accepts this implicitly. You just sound callow by disputing it.

            • Span Ows

              Sounding callow and being right suits me.

              • David Lindsay

                But you have only managed one of them.

                Would you like some more examples?

                Question Time, 10th January: Nadine Dorries, Camilla Cavendish, Ed Davey of The Orange Book, David Dimbleby of the Bullingdon Club.

                Any Questions 11th January: Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the Loony Right Douglas Murray (in place of a distinguished lawyer and former Labour councillor and parliamentary candidate who had been billed), Jonathan Dimbleby.

                Any more?

                • Span Ows

                  Dig your hole deeper: as yet you have failed to name A SINGLE one. Figures of the hard right Mr. lindsay, your words. Eat them.

                • David Lindsay

                  How Hard does the Right have to be for you?

                  But I never said that. I said that there were always at least two right-wingers, often two Conservative Party members, and frequently figures of the Hard Right whose views were far outside the mainstream: dismantling the NHS, abolishing the minimum wage, waging war on all manner of places, and so on.

                  All of that is beyond dispute. The facts speak for themselves.

                • Span Ows

                  No, your words on Liddle’s thread: two figures of the hard right every week. Hahaha. Run along now Mr. lindsay,

                • Richard

                  Perhaps you win your ding dong debate about the word ‘hard’, but these lists of speakers scarcely show the Left wing or even the Guardianista bias endlessly alleged in these pages. That’s the more important point.

                • Span Ows

                  Richard, indeed not but the original point was “the BBC” not just political quiz/debate shows. And even in the case of political questions etc it certainly isn’t every week and it has been shown that the “right-wing” get far more interruptions and far less time to get the point across (I won’t even begin to ask how they select audiences!) Added to this DL’s ludicrous inclusion of Johnathon Dimbleby (word suggested for spelling: dissembler LOL!) as right wing!

                • Richard

                  Right-wingers are interrupted more often? I’m sorry, but this verges on the paranoid. I don’t see how such an assertion could ever be verified, or refuted for that matter. Much of the discussion above demonstrates, that it’s hard even to agree who counts as “right-wing”, let alone count all the interruptions and measure them against the interruptions received by Left-wingers and people not easily categorised as either Left or Right. I’m afraid this sort of rather desperate argument confirms my suspicion that all this alleged bias is very much in the eye of the beholder. Perceptions of this are powerfully determined by the pre-existing sympathies. Can you give me an example of what you perceive to be BBC bias against a view you strongly disagree with? I agree with you about the Dimbleby comment though – that’s weird.

                • Span Ows

                  Not desperate, confirmed. It takes a lot of time, effort and a good watch but it can be done. Funnily enough two of the examples that DL mentions are ones where it is fairly easy to assess. Also the Today programme is notorious for laid-back chatting and agenda-setting with Labour whilst ripping into Conservatives barely giving them a chance to reply (same happened before so it isn’t ‘bringing the government to account’, it is patent ideological bias. On Any Questions or Question Time just time each person’s allowance before some interruption by the chairperson, The 2nd half of your comment is you falling for the trick that David Lindsay and his ilk want you to fall for: they make outrageous claims so it appears the bias is both ways, it is not and clearly so. On Israel, on Climate Change, on the EU on the USA political scene they have been shown to be biased. On crimes by Muslim extremists they are beginning to be not just bias but sinister in their non/misreporting.

                • Richard

                  Do the the assessments you mention come from right-wing sources, by any chance? You haven’t actually cited any evidence here. What do they do, count interruptions, monitoring the duration of each interruption, discounting those that seem accidental, while also keeping an objective measure of how right or left wing the interrupted speaker is? You can’t just say that these things are ‘patent’ or that they have been ‘shown’.

                  Again – do you think there is any bias against views you don’t agree with?

                • Span Ows

                  Right wing sources…I’ve no idea but you’d be surprised, one even has “interruption coefficients”.

                  “Again”, oooh, is this your killer point? Do I ‘think there is any bias against views I don’t agree with? Had to read that a few times to realise what you meant: I’m still not sure: it seems very convoluted; do you mean is the BBC bias in favour of something I’m in favour of? If that’s what you mean then yes,m they are far too bias in favour of football and I love football but still think they go too far to the detriment of many other sports.

                • Richard

                  No, I am asking whether there is a political view you disagree with that you perceive as the victim of the same sort of BBC bias you are alleging in respect of right-wing ideas. If not, that ought to give us pause for thought about these accusations, which come as frequently from the Left as the Right. You’ve side-stepped into non-political topics like football.

                  Also, we need a more complex account of what bias is than a simple Left-Right distinction can supply. Are you suggesting that the balance of coverage of political ideas should always try to match the fluctuating opinion polls? Should astrology have equal time with established science? Should there be space in business reports for opposition to consumerist values? What are the relative merits of the need to educate and the need to represent popular feeling?

                • Span Ows

                  Is there a political view you disagree with that you perceive as the victim of the same sort of BBC bias? Not as far as I am aware BUT you go about “alleging in respect of right-wing ideas”. Right wing ideas? EU is cross spectrum. Climate change is cross spectrum, both have been in the media as far as the BBC coverage not in line with their legal impartial requirement. Israel/Palestine not a left/right issue. Even the Obamaworship isn’t a clear-cut UK left/right issue because US politics is much further ‘rightwards’ than the UK.

                  “If not, that ought to give us pause for thought about these accusations”…why?

                  You are also wrong Richard, the claims of bias do not come as frequently from the Left as the Right.

                • Richard

                  To my perception they do come as frequently from Left as Right. I don’t think there can be any objective measure of this. Such perceptions are a matter of what one reads and whom one mixes with. Do you read the Glasgow Media Group pages, for example? Anti-establishment opponents of capitalism routinely feel that the media – the Right-wing press, of course, but also the BBC – reflect establishment and capitalist values. And how do you factor in shows like The Apprentice, Dragon’s Den and Top Gear, which are in the entertainment or reality TV bracket rather than current affairs but clearly expound capitalist and consumerist values?

                  About Israel/Palestine, I must admit, my perception chimes with yours a bit. Israel’s legitimate fears do not get much of a voice, and this hinders public understanding of the conflict. The EU? I can’t see the bias you describe. Sceptical voices are all over the BBC. Climate Change? Well, what exactly is ‘balanced’ coverage there, when there is such a preponderance of specialist scientific opinion on one side? As I said, the concept of balance has to be complicated by the question of what constitutes legitimate expertise. If not, you would end up giving equal time to astrology and scientific cosmology. Plenty of ‘sceptics’ get onto the BBC anyway – rather more than the scientific balance would warrant (but, then, what that balance is can be disputed endlessly too).

                  You see it differently, of course – but that’s my point, really. We see it differently because we come to the BBC primed with different prejudices.

                • Span Ows

                  I am perfectly happy to accept all you say here. This doesn’t mean I will suddenly not think the BBC is bias but at least I see where you’re coming from, especially the last sentence. Now, this article is already on page 2 of the Coffee House so I’ll bid you adieu and “see you” on another thread!

  • Robert_Eve

    What an awful man.

    • ArchiePonsonby

      Agreed; and he hates us, what’s more!

    • Whyshouldihavetoregister

      Why has my comment, ‘Do you mean Obama or Davoid Lindsay?’ been rejected?

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