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Historical Views on the Inauguration, a ‘Holy Day in Our Civic Religion’

January 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
How do we compare President Obama's latest inaugural address to those of presidents past? Jeffrey Brown talks to historians Richard Norton Smith of George Mason University, Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University and Beverly Gage of Yale University about the 57th Presidential Inauguration and the echoes found in U.S. history.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now for some longer-term perspective on this 57th inaugural, we’re joined by three presidential historians, Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University, Richard Norton Smith of George Mason University, and Beverly Gage of Yale.

Welcome to all of you.

Annette, let me start with you. All kinds of history was out there today. Right?


JEFFREY BROWN: What echoes did you hear in the president’s speech?

ANNETTE GORDON-REED, Harvard University: Well, I was very, very much struck by his use of the Declaration of Independence, the words about all men are created equal to make the case for a collectivist or communitarian, as they were saying earlier, vision of what we’re supposed to do so in America, and his linking with the pursuit of happiness and liberty, which is typically thought of as something that is individualistic.

So, the echoes of a communitarian, the idea of people working together, was very, very strong. And I thought it was surprising in a way because he’s not a president who often invokes the founders, certainly not by name. But this was very, very much on his mind.

JEFFREY BROWN: Beverly, what jumped out at you?

BEVERLY GAGE, Yale University: Well, I think we had a lot of historic occasions being marked here. So we had the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech in Washington.

We have the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, but actually what really resonated for me were the ways in which he seemed to be adopting some of the kind of tactics and styles that Franklin Roosevelt once used, in the sense that I felt like this speech was in the end really an invitation and was a kind of invitation to the public to say these are the issues that I care about.

These are the things that I want to do. And now we have got to do this together. So all of you standing out there, make me do these things, which was kind of classic Franklin Roosevelt: I want to do it. Go make me do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard, it’s interesting: These are the things I want to do.

It’s a second inauguration. We know him in a sense. Is he reintroducing himself? Is he redefining himself?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, Scholar in Residence, George Mason University: That’s part of what made today I think so unusual.

In Hollywood, it’s famous. Sequels are inferior to the original. And usually inaugural addresses follow that rule. This didn’t. This was a very different speech. The president talked about the American gift for reinvention. And looking at it now in retrospect, stop and think. I think he’s been practicing a little bit himself.

A year ago — it was exactly a year ago he went out to Osawatomie, Kansas, an unusual place for a president to go, because that’s where Theodore Roosevelt went, and in a high watermark of the progressive era, you know, foreshadowing the Bull Moose Party and his break with the Republican Party, the radicalization of T.R.

I wouldn’t say we saw the radicalization of Barack Obama. But we saw — I think this was the most ideologically assertive inaugural address since Ronald Reagan’s first speech, this being the un-Reagan.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was it, though, in overt language or symbols, or in more — we were talking earlier today as we were watching about the sort of code that he was talking…

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: There was more coded language.

There were things that — talking about takers, we’re not a nation of takers and so forth, and making reference to the lash and the sword and those kinds of things that he knows — references that he knows people will understand and that — codes people will get. So it was really about ideas.

And one of the things that I mentioned before about him not mentioning names is about ideals and ideas. And so he was there, I think, summoning the will that Beverly talked about to say, look, we are here together. This is your country. We are citizens. Let’s make it happen.

It is very ideological. I think this is Barack Obama saying who he actually is.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what is that? I mean, what came through that connects — you were talking about the connection to Roosevelt and other presidents in the past. What’s the vision that you felt came through?


Well, I think often in inaugural addresses, a president is going to tell his own story of American history. And it was very clear that Barack Obama was telling a story that was about the expansion of rights.

And he hit upon some sort of odd moments that you don’t always see put together. I mean, a lot of people have been commenting on the mention of Stonewall, in particular, and his coming out and really folding gay rights into this story of expansion.

One of the things that I didn’t see so much and sort of in contrast to FDR or in contrast to T.R., too, is that you didn’t see a lot of economic populism here, right? So, on the one hand, he’s telling this big story of expanded rights and social movements. On the other hand, you didn’t hear a lot about labor unions, you didn’t hear a lot about Wall Street, you didn’t hear a lot about the financial crisis.

And when Franklin Roosevelt came out in 1937, he said, we have forced the money changers from the temple. And you didn’t get that kind of sort of populist liberalism here from Obama.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Not really his style.


ANNETTE GORDON-REED: I would be surprised if he had done that one.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And it may not be his historical mission.

I mean, look, what is really fascinating, the untold story, the story yet to unfold in this term is the hope that many people had for this president that he would be the individual uniquely qualified to redefine liberalism, to reboot liberalism for the 21st century, post-New Deal, post-Great Society, perhaps with some greater or lesser element of economic populism, but to reimagine liberalism.

The seeds of that were contained in this speech. It will be fascinating to see what…

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, what comes, right, because history must tell us about the permanence or fleetingness, if that’s a word, of these kinds of moments.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: The thing that will tell is when he actually begins to initiate policy and to see if people come along with him. All these people that he’s exhorting today, will they come forward?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, we heard Gwen talking about the coming State of the Union, when we will learn where he goes with his policy.

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, one nice thing about inaugurations is that it’s a day when you’re not only talking about unity, but I think when a lot of people actually feel that. And I think you could see that in the crowds. You can actually even see that at the luncheon, in which you have people from various parties together.

And so I think people carry the memory of that moment, even if, you know, tomorrow, we start back with bickering about where we’re all going next.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, last word, Richard, on the spectacle of the day. We watched it together.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Oh, this is the high holy day of our civic religion.


RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You know, the idea, radical still in much of the world, that seemingly ordinary people can govern themselves — if we can’t all agree on that and celebrate that at least once every four years, then there’s something wrong with our culture.

JEFFREY BROWN: We got music. We got poetry. We got a little speechifying. We got everything, right?

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Everything, everything. It was wonderful.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And inclusiveness. That was the theme from beginning to end. People who often had been left out were included.


Richard Norton Smith, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Beverly Gage, thank you, all three.

BEVERLY GAGE: Thank you.