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A Tale of Two Inaugurals: Comparing Clinton to Obama

President Bill Clinton Delivers his second Inaugural Address on January 20, 1997.

Second inaugurals tend to meet with less fanfare than their predecessors. However, to say that they lack the same significance oversells the point. Rather, they present a unique opportunity. For example, some Presidents may use the opportunity to signal a political pivot while others may choose to double down on their first term.

Bill Clinton’s second inaugural address, delivered January 20, 1997, is an excellent example of the former. For long stretches it simply reinvigorated the base. However, for those with an acute ear, there are telling signs of a more conciliatory term to come.  

The move to the center that defined his second term was exemplified by decrying the omniscience of the state:

As times change, so government must change. We need a new government for a new century – humble enough not to try to solve all our problems for us, but strong enough to give us the tools to solve our problems for ourselves; a government that is smaller, lives within its means, and does more with less.

In clearly suggesting that the idea of shrinking government was up for debate, Clinton opened the window for then-Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Clinton also touched on the core of conservative values: individualism and self-reliance:

Our founders taught us that the preservation of our liberty and our union depends upon responsible citizenship. And we need a new sense of responsibility for a new century…Each and every one of us, in our own way, must assume personal responsibility -- not only for ourselves and our families -- but for our neighbors and our nation.

For many, the speech is unremarkable. While much of the speech resounded with liberal rhetoric, it also reached an olive branch to the other side. And despite bitter partisan battles, the President seemed willing to compromise in his second term. Budgets were passed, crossing the aisle became an actuality, and the deficit vanished (although some of the success was muddied in the waters of later scandal).

Given the subsequent success of this lens, one would have expected more of the same from President Obama. After all, some of his challenges are similar to those faced by Clinton, though partisan gridlock is at even higher levels. Obama’s second term is going to be largely defined by his ability to govern in this reality.

Yet, somewhat surprisingly, Obama’s tactic has been to draw a harder line. He established an obdurate tone with his fiscal cliff press conference a few weeks ago. And I would argue that he doubled down in his inaugural.

Some conservatives, may have found little to love in Obama’s address. For example, the President began by referencing the necessity of regulation, which conservatives oppose:

Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.   

And when he discussed American individualism, he also tied it to liberal values of collective action:

…preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone…

In previewing programmatic themes of his second term, Obama was the first  American President to reference climate change in an inaugural address:

We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.

Perhaps more important, he became the first to use the word “gay” 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.

Taken separately, these remarks are not shocking. However, on aggregate the message is a strong one. Obama is asserting a stronger liberal agenda, free of reservation.  

The President’s more partisan line is a major break from the leader we have come to know. The man once portrayed as staying above the fray, now stands in the middle of it. This raises two questions. First, is he posturing or truly changing his negotiating style? Second, if this alteration is authentic, how will it be received? As referenced in a previous column, smart politics sometimes involves the placation of an opposition’s pride. President Obama’s is now repeatedly doing the opposite. That could cost him. It is a big political risk. By challenging Republicans to a staring contest he puts his legacy in the balance. Time will tell whether it is a gamble that will pay off.  

Tony Lucadamo serves as Sr. Editor for the Virginia Policy Review. He is a Master's candidate studying at the University of Virginia's Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

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