Skip to main content

Obama finally meets Machiavelli

By Gordon Stewart, Special to CNN
January 22, 2013 -- Updated 1957 GMT (0357 HKT)
inauguration quotes
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gordon Stewart says Obama's second inaugural speech made up for the mistakes of his first
  • Stewart: Obama spoke as a leader who is prepared to make choices and fight for them
  • He says unlike the disappointing first inaugural speech, there was no blame this time
  • Stewart: Both Obama's supporters and opponents have a clearer idea of what he will do next

Editor's note: Gordon Stewart is former deputy chief speechwriter to President Jimmy Carter and the moderator of TheNextDeal.org, an online project to revise the U.S. social contract for the 21st century.

(CNN) -- It's a good bet that millions of Americans on Monday greeted President Barack Obama's magnificent second inaugural address not just with applause and cheers of approval but with loud sighs of relief.

Gone were his first inaugural speech's bizarre equal division of blame for the wreckage of real lives between the "greed of some" and the so-called "collective failure" of the rest of us. Instead, Obama rang out his commitment to equality for all, not the "shrinking few and lucky" who call the rest of us simply "takers."

Nor did our president chide us to put away ''childish things" by seeming to describe deep differences over "perpetual war," climate change, immigration, equal rights, voting rights, rights to decent wages for honest labor and rights to "basic measures of security and dignity" as "petty grievances."

Gordon Stewart
Gordon Stewart

This time around, Obama offered us not song and dance morals from an old Depression musical comedy to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again," but solid, specific support for the serious New Deal pillars of Social Security and Medicare.

Opinion: Obama's ringing defense of liberalism

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Almost for the first time as president, he dared to utter the word "poverty" in a major address, and declared ''we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice."

These moments and more earned his speech the warm response and respect it deserves. Now it will receive the careful analysis it cannot escape. This will reveal even more profound differences between Obama's second inaugural speech and his historic appearance on the steps of the U.S. Capitol as the president of color few believed they would see elected in their lifetimes.

1. His first inaugural address was a puzzling disappointment after the passionate convictions he expressed so powerfully in both his primary and general election campaigns. Some suggested that his finest moment was Election Night in Chicago's Grant Park. No one who followed his campaign, including his opponents, could have been surprised by his second inaugural speech.

Obama's inaugural address: Then and now
2009: Obama inauguration makes history
Was President Obama's address partisan?
Exclusive sketch of Michelle Obama dress

2. Monday's words were those of a leader who has chosen to fight for the change he believes in over flailing attempts to placate that only produced astounding charges that he was unwilling to compromise when in fact he had given so much in doomed efforts to do just that.

3. His repeated calls for "We the People" to work together were not-so-subtle warnings of who would be responsible if the U.S. government is unable to do so. No blame-splitting this time.

4. Even Obama's delivery and demeanor conveyed conviction, not the sense that a press aide might soon emerge from Caesar's tent beside the Rubicon to explain that his thinking is still "evolving."

Opinion: How Obama made opportunity real in America

In this second inaugural address, Obama the Candidate became Obama the President without a trace of the bait and switch to which too many citizens have become so accustomed that in their cynicism they cease to vote at all. He spoke as a leader who has stopped splitting differences and is prepared to make choices and fight for them -- together as We the People if possible, alone as Obama the President if not.

Opinion: Obama's America, better than what Founders imagined

In fact, Monday's speech felt as if after four frustrating years of trying to appease his opponents, Barack Obama had finally met Machiavelli one night in the Lincoln Bedroom and learned that when faced with two equally powerful opposing forces, a president must choose, or both will attack him. He sounded like a leader who knows now that the difference between making a choice and making love is that decisions don't feel better the longer you can draw them out.

As Obama goes from celebration to celebration, his supporters and his opponents have a much clearer idea of what he will do tomorrow, and for the next 1,000-plus days he is president.

This time when he tells banks and insurance companies that "a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play," they will do well to believe him. Because even with all the cash he collected to fill the coffers of his campaign, Monday's speech makes it clear he will not let it line the coffin of his presidency.

It betrays no security measures to mention that the Secret Service chooses oddly accurate code words for the presidents it protects.

After Obama's first inauguration, that could have been "dancer." After Monday's address, it could legitimately consider ''leader." If the president is able to act in accordance with his second inaugural address, it's not impossible now to imagine "Lincoln." He wasn't afraid to fight when the nation would not stay together.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gordon Stewart.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT