There seems to be a dramatic difference between Obama 2009 and Obama 2013.
Four years ago, in Barack Obama's first inaugural address as President of the United States, he boldly proclaimed a mission of fundamentally transforming America; in this week's inaugural speech, the reelected President shifted, wholesale, the tone and substance of his remarks.
He now talks about liberal politics rather than systemic revolution.
What does this mean?
2009: A Transformational Mission.
Back then, Barack Obama's campaign promises were mighty grandiose. At one point, he publicly personalized his calling along with a charge to his audience: "We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." On another occasion he said, "I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment ... when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."
Most pertinently, consider Obama's 2009 inauguration, wherein he referenced his mission in carefully-crafted, nonpartisan, but evocative terms as a challenge of unusual crisis, with words and phrases like "gathering clouds and raging storms," a sapping of confidence across our land," "a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable"; and he said, "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." He then warned:
Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply ... This is the source of our confidence: the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.
Campaign rhetoric and inaugural speeches are supposed to challenge and inspire; but Barack Obama commanded unusual personal mystique; he conveyed monumental personal legacy in our unfolding history; and he garnered surprisingly broad support for his transformational vision.
2013: A Message of Partisan Politics.
Now, consider his remarks this week. Gone are the musings of messianic deliverance. Gone is the language of national systemic transformation. Instead, the address is a conventional message of contemporary challenges and liberal political objectives.
In his opening substantive paragraph, for example, he articulated traditional inspirations and talked about our allegiance to the past. With specific reverence for time-worn, self-evident truths and American exceptionalism, he said:
Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago.
He then launched an ode to routine political action rather than radical reformation. Among his invocations of incrementalism were the following:
It is now our generation's task to carry on what those pioneers began ... Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time -- but it does require us to act in our time ... 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.
Finally, he proceeded to pitch an extensive list of programmatic initiatives totally in line with the values and ideals of his party.
The comparison of Obama 2009 and Obama 2013 is striking. Four years ago, he announced himself as an iconoclastic president; and he spoke of fundamental transformation to a new world. This past Monday, he presented a standard partisan message befitting any Democratic politician of modern times.
Making Sense of This Rhetorical Leap.
Most media analysts and politicians are stuck in the contemporary mire of Washington muck. They predictably lauded the inaugural address as inspiring progressivism; or they attacked him for its partisanship.
However, it is important that we note the striking differences between 2009 and 2013, because that dichotomy raises several questions about him as a leader and what we can expect in his second term.
Most obviously, is Mr. Obama -- in his inner core -- a transformational philosopher or a partisan politician? Did he change his mind over the past four years? Did he really believe what he said back then? Does he really believe what he's saying now? Did the Washington wars make him give up on healing the planet? Did he figure out the realities of D-versus-R on Capitol Hill? Does this mean all-out war with the Republicans?
Strangely, after positing such a drastic dichotomy between Obama 2009 and Obama 2013, I propose that the incongruity between the two inaugural speeches is more apparent than real. Actually, in my opinion, Mr. Obama is both a transformational leader and a partisan politician. He seems genuinely committed to changing America into his version of a good society; but he also has sharp political instincts and sharp partisan elbows.
Just as importantly, he is good at both jobs. He seems smart and pleasant and he radiates compassion for people. Furthermore, like Ronald Reagan, he has those people with him at this point in his career.
Therefore, I see his latest inaugural address simply as a functional shift in rhetoric and tactics. He established his philosophical mission and credentials very effectively the first time around; and now, I figure, he's proceeding with the sequential, piecemeal, partisan, political battles of systemic transformation.
Whether He Succeeds Remains To Be Seen.
So, I think we "Obama Watchers" (both lovers and haters) should note for the record our President's giant leap from 2009 to 2013. He has shifted gears from philosophy to politics; and we'll probably witness four more years of nasty wrangling in Washington.
But as national power players challenge him, they would be wise to keep in mind that he was then and still hopes to be a transformational leader -- and he is a formidable partisan politician.