Analysis: Obama's Inaugural Address Spoke to Younger, Browner Nation

PHOTO: President Barack Obama gives his Inaugural address on the West Front of the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, during the ceremonial swearing-in ceremony during the 57th Presidential Inauguration.Rob Carr, Pool/AP Photo
President Barack Obama gives his inaugural address on the West Front of the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013.

President Barack Obama's second inaugural address is being pegged as the emergence of a "liberal" Obama who is prepared to wade into controversial social issues that were largely left on the shelf during his first term.

"This was no centrist conciliator. It was the speech of a committed, unapologetic progressive, an Obama doctrine for domestic policy that included concrete commitments in areas he made little progress on over his first four years," wrote ABC News' Rick Klein on Tuesday. "Above all, he was speaking to a changing America – the nation that propelled him to a second term, and whose voices he will need to channel to be effective over the next four years."

Obama's forcefulness on issues like gay rights, immigration, climate change and gun control was somewhat unexpected and Republicans blasted the address as overly partisan.

But the divide may have less to do with political parties and more to do with demographics. Young people and minorities, groups that largely supported Obama, view issues like gay rights and immigration differently than voters who are older and white. And they might even be driving change among the general public.

Here are some numbers that illustrate how quickly this shift has taken place:

Gay Rights

"Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well." -- President Obama.

It's believed that President Obama is the first president to mention gay rights in an inaugural address. That's an indicator of the nation's rapidly changing views on the topic.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted in Dec. 2012 showed that 51 percent of Americans support gay marriage. That's up from just 30 percent in 2004, as NBC's Mark Murray noted this morning.

Young people have long been more accepting of gay rights than the rest of the country. A poll by USA Today/Gallup showed that 73 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 say gays and lesbians should be able to marry. But older Americans also appear to be changing their views. Over one third of all respondents say their views have changed significantly on gay marriage and 53 percent now support it, while 46 percent oppose it. In 1996, a Gallup poll found that the public opposed same-sex marriage 68-27 percent.

Political observers believe that young people have driven the shift in public opinion over the past decade or more.

"They could say it's now safe to look at this because there is something like an emerging consensus," conservative columnist George F. Will said on ABC's "This Week" in December. "Quite literally, the opposition to gay marriage is dying. It's old people."

That shift also includes groups that are typically thought of as holding "traditional values" on social issues. Fifty-five percent of Latino voters, 71 percent of whom backed Obama in 2012, said in a May NBC poll that they back gay marriage. At the time, that percentage exceeded white support for gay marriage by seven percentage points.

"Hispanics are actually much less likely than whites to vote on the basis of cultural issues," demographer Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, wrote for Univision News at the time. "Thus, even where they are relatively conservative on issues such as abortion, they are not likely to align their vote with their view on that issue."


"Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country." -- President Obama.

Latino voters have long supported immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for the undocumented. And in 2012, they comprised 10 percent of the overall electorate for the first time ever.

And just as Latino voters are growing in number and influence, there are signs that the rest of the nation has reached a tipping point on this issue and begun to move in that direction.

According to a CNN/Opinion Research survey released Tuesday, 53 percent of Americans want the main focus of federal immigration reform to include a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants instead of mass deportation. Forty-three percent disagreed. By comparison, in 2011, 55 percent of Americans said that deporting undocumented people and stopping the flow of illegal immigration should be the government's top priority.

That's consistent with other surveys, as well. For the first time in NBC's polling, a majority of Americans backed a pathway to legal status for the undocumented. A November ABC News/Washington Post survey also found that 57 percent back allowing undocumented immigrants to earn legal status.

Support for legalization is very high across Obama's groups of core supporters, according to the ABC poll, including all non-whites (68 percent) and young adults (69 percent). But even among non-Hispanic whites, 51 percent now back a pathway to legal status.

It's far from a given that Obama will be able to accomplish his goals on all the issues he laid out in his inaugural address. On the surface, for example, all indications point to a bipartisan deal on immigration reform. But a debate in Congress over core issues like the final status of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. is still expected to spark a contentious debate.

And that's not to mention the far more divisive issues that Obama called out such as entitlements and climate change.

But Obama's address spoke to a nation that is rapidly changing its views on some of the fundamental social issues that have defined our politics for a generation. And those changes would not have happened without the political coming of age of a younger and browner America.