Obama's Speech Acts Like Preamble To State Of The Union Address

Robert Siegel talks to national political correspondent Mara Liasson for analysis of the president's speech on Inauguration Day.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

After President Obama's inaugural address today, the crowd heard from Beyonce singing the national anthem. We're going to hear now from Mara Liasson, NPR's national political correspondent. Hi.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And let's start with the big differences between the inaugural address today and the one that we heard four years ago back in 2009.

LIASSON: Well, the differences are huge and there's a lot - a lot has made of the fact that the crowds are much smaller and it's a more somber, less euphoric event. But the thing that struck me is just how happy and relaxed the Obamas looked, and I think the president is relieved not to be taking his second oath of office, as he did when he took his first, at a time of complete financial collapse and economic crisis.

Politics in Washington might look more broken than it ever has. On the other hand, things look a lot better than they did in 2009.

SIEGEL: What surprised you in this speech today?

LIASSON: Well, what surprised me is I thought the speech was very substantive, not purely thematic. Somebody today described it as more of a State of the Union address, almost like a little preview for the State of the Union. He was very specific about what he wants to get done. He talked about climate change. We will respond to the threat of climate change.

He talked about immigration, how he wants bright, young students to be getting an engineering degree rather than being expelled from the country. He talked about Medicare and Social Security. And I think he really laid out what he wants to do in the next four years.

SIEGEL: But you say it sounded like a State of the Union. By talking about Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid the way that he did, it was as if to say it's not just a legislative agenda for me, that's what our democracy is all about.

LIASSON: That's right. One of the things he did, and I thought this was a very political part of the speech, but it's also where he wraps every one of his programmatic priorities into an American value. As we just heard the president say, he said the commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things don't sap our initiative. They strengthen us. They don't make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great. And, of course, takers was the unfortunate phrase that Mitt Romney used in the campaign.

And he believes that this is the basis of providing security to the middle class. He said the prosperity has to rise on the shoulders of a rising middle-class. And this is where he is anchoring his programmatic agenda in age-old American theme.

SIEGEL: Considering that the president spoke about redressing the inequality of wealth in the country, dealing with climate change and, as you said, with immigration, he doesn't have a lot of time to act on all of these things, does he?

LIASSON: No. He doesn't have a lot of time, whether he has six months or a year or two years before the midterm elections. And I think that he has a sense of urgency about this. He even said at one point, he said we don't have to resolve the centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time. But we do have to act in our time. And he says, the decisions are upon us, we cannot afford delay.

I think the president is very aware of the short, small window of time that he has to act. He wants to get these things done before he turns into a complete lame duck.

SIEGEL: And he was saying the things we do now, they're going to be compromised. They're not going to be perfect. It'll be up to future congresses and presidents to do more on it. But the idea of not doing anything is unacceptable.

LIASSON: That's right. He says we know our work will be imperfect. We know that today's victories will only be partial. And I think that's says the president, he's in a hurry, he wants to get some things done, and he isn't going to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

SIEGEL: So bottom line, a successful second inaugural, you think?

LIASSON: Yes, a successful second inaugural. Now the hard work begins. He has to work with a fractured, divisive Congress and see if he can get some of these things done.

SIEGEL: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thank you, Mara.

Thank you.

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