The overwhelming first inclination was to label President Obama's Inaugural Address a missed opportunity to mend his badly frayed relations with Congress. Reaching across the aisle and trying to unite the country after a divisive campaign is, after all, what we expect from inaugurations in normal times.
But these are not normal times, and the president's address was anything but what we expected. In the years since he burst onto the scene with a stirring keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama has responded to a national yearning for a post-partisan figure who could unite warring political factions and get things done. On Monday, he decided to respond instead to a yearning among liberals who — to paraphrase Republicans' cry when they thought President Reagan was restraining his inner conservatism — want to let Obama be Obama.
And the Obama who emerged at his second inauguration did, indeed, reject the pastels of 2008 and speak in the bold colors that Reagan so favored. Unlike his first Inaugural Address, this one left little doubt where he stood. It thrilled liberals, who loved its combativeness. One influential progressive activist privately exulted to National Journal, "It looks like Charlie Brown finally picked up the football and decided to kick it himself." The activist argued, "An olive branch, frankly, would have been a real waste at this point, given what we've seen." Similar joy was seen immediately after the speech. Democratic strategist Paul Begala, speaking on CNN, celebrated that gone for the day was the president who "often slips into sort of airy-fairy "˜Kumbaya.' " In his place, Begala saw "a man itching for a fight."