Obama's Inauguration Speech, The Right Tone?

President Barack Obama delivered his second inaugural speech today. Host Michel Martin explores how his words may have resonated with Americans —those who voted for him and those who didn't— with two former White House insiders.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, pioneering journalist Simian Booker braved humiliation and danger in the Jim Crow South to cover important stories for Jet magazines for more than five decades. And he will tell us more about his remarkable career later this hour.

But first, President Obama has been sworn in for his second term in office. He talked about tackling big problems like reducing the deficit and addressing climate change. But most of all, he talked about the need for all parties to act for the common good.

(SOUNDBITE OF INAUGURATION SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

For now, decisions are upon us. And we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics or treat name calling as reasoned debate.

We must act. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today's victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 hundreds years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.

MARTIN: With us now to talk more about the speech and the day and the next four years are two of our trusted political observers. Corey Ealons is a former communications advisor in the Obama administration. He is now a senior vice president with the strategic communications firm Vox Global. Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush. She's now a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report.

They both join us here in our studios in Washington D.C. Welcome back. Happy New Year to you both and thank you for spending part of this Inauguration Day and Martin Luther King Day with us.

MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here.

COREY EALONS: Absolutely. Great to be here.

MARTIN: Corey, from the standpoint of someone who logged so many miles with the president helping him to win this office to begin with four years ago and then who worked in the first term, what did you and the people who similarly worked like you to get him to that point, what did you want to hear from the president today? And did he deliver it?

EALONS: I wanted to hear him talk a little bit about the past but even more so about the future. In his speech four years ago it was such an amazing occasion - seas of people in the Washington Mall, 1.8 million people out there all waiting to hear what this first African-American president would say to the American people about the way forward.

And I think he delivered in that speech. If you look at it in hindsight he talked about the challenges ahead. It wasn't the soaring rhetoric of red states and blue states. It talked about the times that we were living in and the housing bubble - or the housing crisis - and things of that nature.

This time, he mentioned those pieces but he also talked about how we need to come together. This is going to be done, moving the country forward, is going to be done with us. We will do this, working together. So I wanted to hear him - I would have liked to have heard him say a little bit more directly about the challenges we face here, politically in Washington, and how we need to get over it and get on with.

But I think the way he did it - obviously much more eloquently than I would have said it.

MARTIN: OK.

EALONS: And we're moving on now.

MARTIN: OK. Well, Mary Kate, a perfect segue to you as a member of the loyal opposition.

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: And in fact, as a person who has criticized the president, in your view, for being too partisan or contributing to the partisanship as opposed to helping to bridge it. What did you hope to hear from him today and did you hear that?

CARY: I was hoping to hear a more of an outreach to Republicans, specifically. And I think - at the 30,000 foot level he did do that by tying the liberal agenda - which he ticked off, you know, programmatically. Not as much as a State of the Union address would but more than your average inaugural address.

He ticked off liberal agenda items but for the most part tried to tie them to the founding fathers and the principles that founded our country which holds great appeal to a lot of the constitutional conservatives and Tea Party types who are always wanting to talk about our founding principles.

And I think coming from the left to try to do that was his way of trying to sort of reach across the aisle. But I think he could have gone further. I think there were things he could have really specifically offered an olive branch on and chose not to.

MARTIN: You know, and that's interesting because, Corey Ealons, there is a partisan divide over whether there really is a partisan divide...

EALONS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...and who is most responsible for it. And we've often heard Mary Kate Cary talk about the fact that she feels this is a very partisan - she's not the only person - this is a very partisan president. The other side of it, the president's base, many people feel he hasn't had enough of a hammer. He hasn't been vigorous enough in advancing the agenda items for which these folks - his base - worked.

And I'm just wondering. Is there really any way to bridge that, intellectually, but rhetorically, even? Just focusing on the speech today.

EALONS: Well, not in an 18-minute inaugural address. That's a lot of ground to cover in a very short period of time. But I think we've already seen hints of what this presidency, this second term, is going to be like. I mean, today the president had a little bit of a slip when he was taking the Oath of Office, right?

When you think of the enormity of the presidency it does kind of give you a little hiccup, a little gulp in your throat. But moving on past that, looking at what are we going to do next, what are we going to be next? How are we going to govern? How are we going to move forward? The enormity of what we still have before us is immense.

And I think what the president tried to do today was to say, look, we've come a long way but we still have a long way to go. And at the same time acknowledge the challenges that are faced by individual communities. I think this is the first time in history that the GLBT community, the gay, lesbian community, have been called out for the need to recognize their needs for...

MARTIN: You mean specifically mentioned in an inaugural address?

EALONS: Absolutely.

CARY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Asking for an opportunity for - yeah. Yeah.

EALONS: And a recognition of who they are as a community and the need for equal opportunity to be extended to them as well. He talked about the economic needs of women and to bring that to a point of parity. So ticking off those individual communities and the challenges that they still face and how far they have to go, I thought that was pretty incredible today.

MARTIN: Yeah. We're speaking with two of our trusted political observers, both former White House staffers: Corey Ealons, who served in the Obama administration; Mary Kate Cary who served in the George H. W. Bush administration are with us. Mary Kate, to the point of reaching out specifically that is something you felt that you would have liked the president to have done.

And I just want to play a clip from a speech given by your former boss, President George H. W. Bush. This is from his 1989 Inaugural Address.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT GEORGE H. W. BUSH: To my friends - and, yes, I do mean friends - in the loyal opposition - and, yes, I mean loyal - I put out my hand. I'm putting out my hand to you, Mr. Speaker. I'm putting out my hand to you, Mr. Majority Leader.

MARTIN: You know, maybe this is a question better for Corey, is that the president did not do that. President Obama did not do that. And any thoughts about why not?

EALONS: Well, again, I say that we already have seen a little bit of what this president is going to be. The fact that we didn't have a long drawn-out debate over the debt ceiling issue and the president being defiant and saying, look, we are not going to negotiate this issue. We're going to pay the bills that we've already run up and then we're going to have another conversation.

And to have the Republicans - I won't say capitulate, because that sounds like, you know, they just kind of caved in.

MARTIN: Capitulate. Right. Right. Sounds like capitulate.

EALONS: Right. Right.

CARY: Let's not do that.

EALONS: Let's not do that.

(LAUGHTER)

EALONS: But they did realize the importance of taking a different route than they've taken before. They obviously appreciate that to continue to do the same thing over and over again is insanity. And so they've chosen to take a different route at this point but they've chosen to do so because this president is expressing a different form of leadership now.

So the hope is that they will continue to follow that leadership, but in doing so, we will come together and not be driven further apart.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, to that end, you know, the leader of the Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell, famously was quoted as saying his top priority was denying President Obama the second term, which he, in fact, you know, achieved. Having said that, do you think - do the Republicans believe that the president does, in fact, have more of a mandate than he did last time? Do they feel that he - do they expect him to govern more, even more aggressively, or attempt to?

CARY: Well, I think there was an opportunity in this speech. By the way, I think every Republican leader or Democratic leader, in a presidency, wants the president not to get re-elected. I don't think that was a uniquely Mitch McConnell invention, you know, but...

MARTIN: Well, no. I think - I'm sorry. I think you could argue to say that that's your top priority to deny someone a second term?

CARY: He probably shouldn't have said it, but I think it's a common sentiment.

MARTIN: Well, forgive me, but one might argue that your top priority might be reducing the deficit or your top priority might be...

CARY: Well, that would be better. Yes.

MARTIN: ...getting to...

CARY: That would have been better.

MARTIN: ...getting to the moon or, you know...

CARY: Right. Well, along those lines.

MARTIN: ...ending poverty. That might be your top priority.

CARY: If you look at - if you look at the first Obama inaugural, it ended - the speech ended with this rousing story about George Washington in Valley Forge saying, let us bring the light of freedom to future generations, sort of, let us march. And this speech did not do that. There was not a rousing story. There were no references to his own past or his father not being served in a restaurant 60 years earlier.

To me, this was a little more of a general explainer-in-chief type of speech where he was explaining our values and how they relate to the current situation. I'm not sure that he motivated anybody and it would have been nice to have the same sort of rousing thing, even aimed at his own party, to say, let's move forward on spending and fixing this country.

The line that the president said next in that clip that you just played from 1989, he said, the American people did not send us here to bicker. They asked us here to rise above the merely partisan. And something like that would have been a really nice touch. He quoted St. Augustine: In crucial things, unity. In important things, diversity. In all things, generosity. And, when it comes to the country moving forward, he turned to the Democrats and said, in crucial things, unity. And I think I would have loved to hear something like that.

You know, nobody remembers that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and there was a lot of Lincoln today. He had a couple of places in the text where he quoted Lincoln without saying it was Lincoln and it would have been nice if he said, let me quote a great Republican, and I think that would have bought him a lot of goodwill.

MARTIN: Corey Ealons, you know, what about - I don't know. One might make an argument that he did actually have a call to citizens. His closing comments were saying that U.S. citizens kind of also have an oath. I'm going to ask you about that. We need to take a short break. We're just going to pause here, but when we come back, I'm going to ask you about that, Corey Ealons, and say, you know, what exactly was he asking citizens to do?

We're talking about today's presidential inauguration. We're looking ahead to the next four years, as well, with our trusted observers, Corey Ealons, Mary Kate Cary. Please, stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'll be here, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we are going to ask how Martin Luther King, Jr. might have viewed the historic challenges facing President Obama today.

But first, back to those challenges on this inauguration day. We're talking about what President Obama might face in his next four years. Still with us, Corey Ealons, former communications advisor for the Obama administration, Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for President H.W. Bush.

Corey Ealons, before the break, I was asking - I was talking about the president's closing remarks and he said - he was talking about his oath, the oath that he took, the oath that Joe Biden took as vice president, the oath that many people who serve in the military take, and he said that you and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country's course. 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.

What is he saying here? What is he asking people to do?

EALONS: I think he attempted to end the speech in a different way, but with the same thing that he began the speech, where he was talking about, again, together, we determine that a modern economy requires railroads and highways. Together, we discover that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.

What he was saying is, collectively, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives - ultimately, we as a people and as an American community, decide our fate and so it was a call. It was a charge. It was a charge to the American people that we need to step up and we need to hold our elected leaders accountable, and that dives into the new Obama movement that's going to take up here in the next several weeks where the campaign apparatus is going to begin going door-to-door and continuing that continuous campaign that we saw from last year.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, I want to hear from you, but before I do that, I just want to play a short clip from Mary Apt(ph) of Truro, Massachusetts. One of our producers went out on the Mall and were talking to voters and people who came to ask, what are their expectations? What do they want? And this is what Mary Apt had to say.

MARY APT: Education for the public, keeping it up-front and clear that everybody deserves to be educated and that teachers are respected and that they get the monies that they need in order to make sure every kid - every kid, even the kids in Washington, D.C. - that they get the education that they deserve.

MARTIN: Needless to say, we heard a lot of ideas, a lot of specific ideas like this. But, Mary Kate, what about what Corey said, that this - that the president really is attempting to mobilize the public this time?

CARY: Yeah. The quotes you were just reading - I would have - if I was White House communications director, I would have ended the speech right there with - help us shape the debate. Instead, the president kept going and gave one more very long sentence - or two sentences - that has people embracing our lasting birthright and answering the call of history. And, like, what does that mean? That doesn't get me off the couch to go out there and start ringing doorbells.

You know, shape the debate. Now, that's something I could do, you know, and so that, to me, was the clunker of the close. It should have been edited out, I think, ended where you ended, Michel. Maybe you should be White House communications director.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oh, I don't know. I got enough to do over here. Well, let's - hopefully, both of you will be willing to come back on our couch, get you up off your couch and come onto our couch over the next four years.

And thank you both so much for your insights over this last couple of - over the campaign over the last couple of months and more to come.

CARY: Great.

MARTIN: Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's now a columnist and blogger with U.S. News and World Report. Corey Ealons, former communications advisor to President Obama. He's with the communications firm, Vox Global. Both here in Washington, D.C.

Thank you both so much.

CARY: Thank you.

EALONS: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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