Barack Obama’s life is an open book—he wrote two autobiographies whose principal themes of constant self-renewal reinforce each other, the earlier book more philosophical and radical, the later book political and “pragmatic.” Both are equally honest accounts. Yet he continually surprises his allies, opponents, the media, and academia. With the notable exception of Charles Kesler (I Am the Change), his conservative and Republican detractors seem never to have paid his books serious heed. Obama is comparable to Abraham Lincoln in that observers constantly underestimate him. This is the context in which his Second Inaugural is to be read.
The speech’s sharp partisanship is immediately evident, though a conservative would have uttered many of its lines with pleasure (as with his 2004 Democratic convention speech). In this view, timidity, not excessive ambition, has undermined presidents in their second terms. What doesn’t destroy his second term will make him stronger.