Formal set piece events like the presidential inauguration are Obama’s forte. Although below par performances in the first two presidential debates last Autumn did some damage to the election campaign, Obama’s mastery of the pre prepared speech remains second to none.

The speech I witnessed him give in Virginia last Autumn saw the birth of the ‘Romnesia’ catch phrase, and contributed to a rally in the polls that would eventually return him to the White House.

Although the world was perhaps not as captivated by this inauguration as they were by the 2009 version, events like this remain the subject of intense media scrutiny, to an almost farcical degree.  Witness, for example, the media storm that was prompted by Michelle Obama’s new haircut.  Would it be reading too much into the imagery of the event to suggest that the substitution of 2009’s bright red tie for a more sombre tone of blue was a deliberate move?

Presidents have always had a keen sense of the symbolism of these occasions – John Quincy Adams, for example, swore the presidential oath on a book of law, to represent the constitution, whilst Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in on Air Force One.  On Martin Luther King Day, Obama swore on a travelling Bible that had belonged to Martin Luther King.  He also understands the cultural capital that rubs off on him from attendance from the likes of Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Stevie Wonder and Kelly Clarkson.

Having successfully negotiated the challenge posed by the last election (although with a few hairy moments on the way), and with no prospect of a third term to worry about, Obama could afford to be a little more daring in the content of his speech.  Although some of the grand platitudes of 2009, were reiterated, such as the idea that America is greater than the sum of its citizens’ individual aspirations, this was a speech that replaced some of that illustrious rhetoric with daring policies on liberal hot topics such as equal pay and health care.  Notably, this was the first time that an American president has used the word ‘gay’ in an inauguration speech, whilst use of politically loaded terms such as ‘collective’ will have antagonised the sizeable proportion of opponents who regularly chastise Obama for being ‘socialist’.  Minor nods to the right, such as an acknowledgement of the particularly American attitude of skepticism towards central government, will have done little to appease these foes.

This is a President who will be conscious of the need to ensure his legacy (which remains unfulfilled, given an underwhelming first term), and conscious of the fierce fights that lie ahead.

In the run up to the 2012 US Presidential election Tim worked as an assistant to the Regional Field Director for President Obama in Fairfax County, Virginia, and blogged regularly on the campaign.

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