In some ways, it’s what Barack Obama didn’t say in his Inaugural Address that was most significant.
The president came close to ignoring the rest of the world as he delivered a broad vision for America’s future. And yet the near-total absence of overseas issues in his 22-minute address amounted to, paradoxically, the fullest articulation yet of the president’s cherished theme from the campaign, that America’s attention should turn to “nation-building here at home.”
What we learned on Monday is that Obama seems to take this idea very seriously. He set the tone at the outset by declaring, somewhat hopefully, “A decade of war is now ending.” His speech also shed new light on the president’s recent Cabinet appointments. With a prospective Defense secretary who has consistently resisted the use of force abroad — Chuck Hagel — and a soon-to-be-confirmed secretary of State who relishes flying around the globe to fix messy situations — John Kerry — Obama will soon have the team he needs to keep the world at bay.
The speech seemed to vindicate the view of some critics that the president who won a Nobel Peace Prize nine months into his first term and extended a hand to his father's coreligionists in a soaring speech in Cairo in 2009 — promising “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world” — has dwindled into the Drone President overseas. Despite some foreign-affairs successes (for example, an opening to Myanmar, a “pivot” to Asia), Obama’s signature legacy abroad thus far has been to turn covert war using drones and special operations into a new, seemingly permanent method of battle.
Perhaps most strikingly, Obama never mentioned Syria in his speech, although the 60,000-plus dead in that terrible humanitarian crisis are already far greater in number than the Kosovar Muslims slaughtered by the Serbs on Bill Clinton’s watch, which provoked a massive NATO air campaign. Nor did Obama address the rise of new jihadist terror in North Africa, which only days before his inauguration resulted in the deaths of at least 37 hostages in Algeria, including three Americans.
Obama did deliver a few throwaway lines about preserving peace abroad, as every president must: “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe,” he said. “We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.” But moments later the president returned to the main theme of his speech, invoking Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln to press for more freedoms at home, becoming the first president to directly link rights for women, blacks, and gays, “through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.’
To the extent he addressed the rest of the world, it was mainly as a foil: “We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries. We must claim its promise,” Obama said. Contrast that to JFK’s famous 1961 pledge to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Or George W. Bush’s second-term commitment "to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture," as Obama’s predecessor put it in his second Inaugural Address. The overwhelming emotional direction of the president’s second-term goals seemed to be inward, despite a foreign-policy agenda that includes climate change and nuclear nonproliferation.
In his closing peroration, repeating again and again the phrase “our journey is not complete,” Obama said his “generation’s task” is to grant equal pay for women, affirm gay and voting rights, fix inequality, and keep children safe. Gone was the familiar commitment to renewed efforts at taking on terrorists abroad, the kind of stern warning Obama issued in his first Inaugural Address when he said, “You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”
Still, wishful thinking does not a presidency make. The day after Obama’s speech, another series of car bombings in Iraq killed at least 16 people, more evidence of reemerging Sunni-Shiite tensions. Iran and North Korea remain festering nuclear nightmares. A new wave of jihadists is rising in the Middle East. It’s not likely the president will be able to shut out the world for long.