Obama's second inaugural: The most important gay-rights speech ever?

Peter Weber

The nation's 44th president is the first to say the word "gay" in an inaugural address — and equated the gay-rights battle to the historic struggles of blacks and women

If anyone doubted the sincerity of President Obama's election-year evolution into a supporter of gay marriage, his second inaugural address should put those doubts to rest. After mentioning the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots, a seminal moment for gay rights, alongside equally important markers for black Americans (the bloody 1965 Selma voting-rights marches) and women (the 1948 Seneca Falls women's rights and suffrage convention), Obama said this: "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." In a speech that included bold calls to action on climate change, immigration reform, and protecting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, Obama made history by just saying the word "gay" in an inaugural address, much less elevating the gay-rights battle to the struggles of blacks and women. 

For all the harrumphing and cheering about how liberal the speech was, say John F. Harris and Jonathan Martin at Politico, "what's so remarkable about Obama citing 'Stonewall' or 'our gay brothers and sisters' — unthinkable in an inaugural speech a decade or two ago — is that for much of the country such references are thoroughly unremarkable." Accepting gay rights as part of the larger American struggle for equality is "simply where the country is now, and Obama, a biracial president with an African name, is as much emblematic of the shift as he is the engine."

SEE MORE: The Supreme Court takes on gay marriage rights today: 4 things you need to know

That's not quite right, and it's not fair to Obama, says Richard Socarides at The New Yorker. Yes, public opinion on gay rights has shifted very quickly in the U.S., and "Obama's second inaugural was evidence of that, but more strikingly it was evidence of a newfound willingness to lead the country more dramatically into the future on gay equality." Nobody was expecting it, but the president just gave "perhaps the most important gay-rights speech in American history." 

Inaugural addresses are, by their definition, important and defining occasions, when presidents set the tone and direction for the coming four years.... Not only was this a call to end discrimination, but an unambiguous argument for the recognition of same-sex marriage across the country... a bold declaration from perhaps the boldest platform of all. The Supreme Court will hear in March a number of cases dealing with same-sex marriage.... Whatever happens, the president's words today about the equality of love will be ringing in the ears of Chief Justice John Roberts, who administered the inaugural oath, and the other justices who watched Obama speak in front of the Capitol. [New Yorker]

Talk is cheap, says Megan McArdle at The Daily Beast. Obama wants kids to be safe, war to be rare, voting lines to be shorter, and immigrants to be welcomed, but he actually "promised nothing of substance, and covered no issue which actually commits him to delivering anything." And even if he is promising something more on gay marriage, "he has no way to deliver." First of all, marriage is a state issue, and as for the things that the federal government actually can do, Obama probably can't get them through the House. "Gay marriage is advancing rapidly, but it is not yet so popular that Obama can count on public opinion to force the GOP's hand; rather the reverse, if anything."

That's what's frustrating about Inauguration Day, which tends to "bring to full bloom the cult of the presidency," says Jonathan Chait at New York. Obama, his speech, and his political calculations were the focus on Monday, "but the prosaic reality is that Obama's disposition isn't the issue here." 

We like our presidential dramas. We want the Obama era to revolve around Obama and produce a character narrative that will eventually produce grist for 800-page tomes that will be Father's Day gifts decades into the future. Obama has done his job extremely well, by my reckoning. But that is all he is — the head of one, equal branch of government, a man we have hired to do a job. Our need to elevate him into a monarchial figure not only causes us to persistently misunderstand the world around us, but is also detrimental to the habits of self-government. [New York]

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