Obama Inaugural Speech Signaling Unity Era: Good Not Great
When President Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President today, he both met and didn’t meet some expectations.
Met expectations: On the crucial issue of changing the United States away from a country where bitter partisan warfare and demonization has now surpassed professional wrestling, Obama delivered in an we’re-all-in-it-together speech marked for its eloquence and call for the United States to once again be truly united. He made it clear that he intends to hit the ground running on what he called “remaking America.”
Didn’t meet expectations: It’s unlikely his speech will be mentioned in coming years in the same breath as JFK’s or FDR’s. More likely, it’ll be considered in the same class as Ronald Reagan’s well-delivered and well-written first inaugural address: on target, on message, connecting with viewers and listeners but not necessarily one for the ages.
A big contrast: The audience and response. Watch now former President George Bush’s speech from 2001 and the delivery is middling but the biggest contrast is the audience, overwhelmingly white with one of the biggest applause lines coming from the front row of well-fed VIPs when he vowed to cut taxes. Obama delivered his usual compelling speech performance in front of an audience of all ages and colors, with many camera shots catching faces of weeping men and women with the big applause line centered on passages about major change.
Still, the bottom line is the fact that for the most part the new and old media seemed to like what it saw in Obama — and many seemed to be communicating a collective sigh of relief that new managers had replaced the old group which didn’t run the business very well. And international leaders were quick to congratulate the new President.
And former Secretary of State Colin Powell told CBS News that Obama’s election and the way it has been received shows that there is a new America …that is really an old America:
“I think it has really, really been an remarkable event in terms of getting everybody to stand back and say, look at what we have seen here in America,” Powell said. “The America we remember is back again.”
Here’s a cross-section of mainstream and new media opinion on the speech and inauguration of Obama:
Though couched in indirect terms, Barack Obama’s inaugural address was a stark repudiation of the era of George W. Bush and a vow to drive the United States into “a new age” by reclaiming the values of an older one.
It was a delicate task, with Mr. Bush and the former vice president, Dick Cheney, sitting feet from him as he described the false turns and the roads not taken. In his words, Mr. Obama blamed no one other than the country itself — “our collective failure to make hard choices” and a willingness to suspend national ideals “for expedience’s sake.”
Yet every time Mr. Obama urged Americans to “choose our better history,” to make decisions according to science instead of ideology, to reject a “false choice” between safety and American ideals, to recognize that American military power does not “entitle us to do as we please,” he signaled a commitment to pragmatism not just as a governing strategy but as a basic value.
It was, in many ways, exactly what one might have expected from a man who propelled himself to the highest office in the land by denouncing where an excess of ideological zeal has taken the nation. But what was surprising about the speech was how much Mr. Obama dwelled on America’s choices at this moment in history, rather than the momentousness of his ascension to the presidency.
It was a good speech but not a soaring one. This may have been because Obama has given so many strong speeches, he’s graded on his own special curve—or because he wanted the speech to be thoroughly conventional. His call to responsibility and sacrifice was rooted in American history—from the first settlers through the colonists to America’s soldiers. This is a familiar theme in a political speech. In fact, Obama gave his own speech using these themes last June, in which he made a similar call to a new patriotism founded on sacrifice. The use of “I say to you” and “on this day” constructions added to the feeling that this was a speech of the usual order.
….He was alternatively humble and commanding. He repudiated Bush’s foreign policy. “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” Obama said. “Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.” He promised humility and restraint. But then, he tempered that new approach with a clear message to America’s enemies: “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” As he spoke, a fighter plane circled overhead, a tiny black spot against unspecific clouds.
How long Obama’s words endure is a separate question from the enduring power of the inaugural moment. Though he never mentioned Martin Luther King Jr., Obama faced the Lincoln Memorial from where King articulated a dream that Obama is now helping to fulfill. That monument seemed brighter in the bitter cold, as did all the bleached white buildings that line the Mall. Between them jostled the millions of people who had come to hear and see him, their small American flags creating a blur of red, white, and blue among the museums and monuments.
–Writers praised the speech, the LA Times reports:
Author Ron Carlson was watching the president’s syntax. “What courage,” he said, “to use a complex sentence talking to a million people! By expecting the best of us, he just might get it.”
Nonfiction writer Mark Kurlansky said the speech “was the most sophisticated view of the world and our role in it of any inaugural address in history.”
Others felt the call to action. “With an Obama speech, listening is sometimes enough,” said Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas Powers, “but not this time. The inauguration speech is one we ought to read. It strikes me as clear and determined and grounded in confidence that of course we are still in the middle of the American story, not nearing the end.”
Author Susan Straight watched the speech with her two mixed-race daughters. Afterward, they discussed their ancestors, the women in their family who never had birth certificates. “We talked about how hard these women had worked, orphaned and enslaved and desperate, to keep their children alive and get them educated.”
Other writers praised the absence of the first person singular. “The word that stood out the most for me,” said author Marisa Silver, “was the word ‘we.’ Taking the ‘I’ out of the equation makes us keenly aware of the power and responsibility that we, each of us, have to make differences.”
USC professor Leo Braudy was moved to think about the difference between general forces in history and the force of the individual, particularly someone who, like Obama, embodies past polarities. “This is how history moves,” he said. “It’s all well and good to talk about the rise of liberalism or the fall of communism, but really it’s the individual who carries these forces within him and is able to move history forward.”
Some, like memoirist Patricia Hampl, praised Obama’s plain speaking. “I was glad,” she says, “that he denied himself rhetorical flourishes and gave a speech as refined and restrained in its power so that political language itself was restored to its greatest value — saying what the speaker means.”
Historians may remember Barack Obama’s inaugural address as a good speech, well delivered, a call to the United States to rise and fight its troubles. They might say it was unifying, a break with the past, a clever attempt to pull the Democratic Party toward the political center.
They could say all those things. But inaugural speeches, if they’re remembered at all, get one line in the books. FDR told us not to fear. JFK told us not to ask what our country could do for us. And President Obama? His speech occurred.
Millions of people did not jam Washington to hear Obama’s ideas about Afghanistan. They wanted to see the first African-American president with their own eyes. These are the words they came for: “… a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”
After he said that, the crowd roared so loudly that for a moment you thought they could hear it back in Illinois.
In general, Obama’s speech marked a high ceremony with dignity. It soared, enough. It talked of today’s troubles but offered hope for tomorrow and aimed for a boost in morale.
“It did what an inaugural speech is supposed to do,” says Leo Ribuffo, a history professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
More than most politicians, Obama has relied on his formal speeches to power his ambitious career. Today’s address — much of which he wrote himself — signaled a sharp break with the domestic and national security policies of the Bush administration and a reaffirmation of Obama’s main campaign themes.
….The biggest and most obvious change that Obama represents went almost unmentioned by him: the fact that he is the first African American or mixed race man ever elected president. He noted the uniqueness of the fact that “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”
But as was the case in his campaign, Obama did not identify himself as “the black candidate for president” and he cast his appeal broadly, not toward a targeted audience.
…What speeches can accomplish, they have delivered handsomely for Barack Obama. Now, it will depend on his deeds.
—At Newsweek, historian Joseph Ellis notes that most inaugural addresses have been uninspiring but some have soared:
We have obviously come a long way. A vast crowd of spectators witnessed the first African-American in our history take the oath of office as president of the United States. Barack Obama’s reputation for oratorical brilliance, plus the multilayered crisis facing the government he has been chosen to lead, combined to generate a dramatic sense of history-in-the-making that required no special pleading from network pundits or crazed bloggers.
If there is an inaugural pattern—that is, beyond the larger pattern of stump-speech cant, hollow rhetoric and false eloquence—it is that the most memorable Inaugural Addresses have occurred at the most perilous times. And the very best of them have been crafted by a president (not speechwriters) with an instinctive ear for language and an oratorical sense energized by the dramatic challenge of the historical moment. Both the moment and the man were in place in January 2009.
Humility, gratitude and sacrifice. From his first words, Barack Obama let us know that even on a day so bright he was not blinded. Not by the cloud of witnesses in front of him. Not by the lights of cameras sending his words across the planet. That he was willing to sound so somber on his day of celebration tells us many things at once. At a time of scarcity, do not waste opportunities. When the world is watching and willing to follow, tell them where you want to take them. And above all tell the truth.
..And then he brought it all together, the challenge and the duty and the promise: “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”
…And so they could all say they were there, to stand together and glimpse a man in the very far distance accept the full weight of their hopes. That, in the end, is the source of Obama’s power. What are we willing to let him do with his office, with a power greater than the one he had when he began this day? At his national-security briefing in the morning, Obama was instructed in the use of the nuclear codes, should he ever have to launch a strike. Once he was sworn in, once the 21 guns had saluted, the military aide in charge of the nuclear football quietly crossed the platform, to stand beside his new Commander in Chief.
CONGRATULATIONS TO MR. OBAMA: The civil-rights revolution was something of my parents’ generation, not mine — my dad marched at Selma, but I was learning to walk, talk and eat at the time, skills I found useful in later life, but . . . . Still, whether or not you voted for Barack Obama, this is a watershed moment. I find that my overwhelming feeling for him right now is sympathy, though, as it was for President Bush. Bill Clinton probably realizes just how lucky he was to be President during a period where things were relatively calm. I fear that won’t be Obama’s lot, as it wasn’t Bush’s, though I hope I’m wrong.
Meanwhile, let’s also hope that this watershed will fade from memory. It was a big deal when JFK became the first Catholic President, but now it seems quaint that that was ever an issue. It will be nice to see the same thing come true regarding the first black President. Meanwhile, inevitably some people will find their fondest expectations unmet, while others — at this point, I count myself among them — will be pleasantly surprised by how things go.
Judging by the content of Barack Obama’s Inaugural address – an assertive speech punctuated by muscular patriotic passages, and somber meditations on our perilous moment – it is clear that he yearns to turn the page on the past and govern as a “post-partisan” president.
If he can really pull that off, he’d be the first of the 44 to do it. The odds are against it. But, like any new president on day one, Obama took the opportunity to conjur the America of his dreams.
Petty politics and ideological combat have always been staples of Washington governance (and mis-governance), which is why President John Adams, miffed by the vicious politicking that contributed to his defeat in 1800, subsequently decided to skip town on Inauguration Day rather than watch rival Thomas Jefferson take the oath. Jefferson then declared in his Inaugural address that he intended to turn the page on the past and usher in a post-partisan era of unity; as he insisted that day, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” It was a nice sentiment, anyway.
Other new presidents tried the same approach, conjuring visions of a post-partisan climate. Even Richard Nixon tried it. Check out his 1969 Inaugural speech, and you’ll find him urging all Americans “to surmount what divides us, and cement what unites us. To lower our voices would be a simple thing. In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words…We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another.”
His ending in a post that MUST be read in full:
It’s hard to know, on day one, whether Obama’s post-partisan vision will prove workable or delusional – that may well hinge on his powers of persuasion, and the willingness of the people to be persuaded – but, for most Americans, it was sufficient on day one just to turn the page and anticipate the possibilities.
For now, there is the allure of the new; the old is gone, as embodied by Dick Cheney in his wheelchair. Obama’s true testing will come soon, and, if his words today were prologue, ours will come too.
—Oxblog’s David Adesnik is in Washington D.C. and watched the festivities from a bar. As usual he has a MUST READ IN FULL post (actually several) but here’s part of it:
Obama began to speak. He thanked Bush for his service. A few grumbles were heard. One of the Code Pinkers gave Bush the middle finger. Obama cites the words of scripture and a few excited women begin to cheer. Obama promises to “restore science to its rightful place.” One woman applauds loudly. Others clap in response.
Obama declares, “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” The loudest applause yet. It took me a minute to realize that the crowd interpreted these words as an implicit criticism of Guantanamo, renditions and everything else that civil libertarians reject as part of the war on terror. I think that interpretation was right, but I thought at first Obama might be talking about human rights and democracy abroad.
Obama reminds us that, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.” From the back of the room, big cheers for ‘non-believers’. Universal applause when Obama says that his father might not have been served at a local restaurant sixty years ago.
The end of the speech seemed to come too soon. Something had not yet happened. Something had not yet been felt. But it was definitely a good day. The crowd turned back to its drinks as Elizabeth Alexander began her poem.
I have written before about the beauty of the peaceful transfer of power in a democracy (for example, here, here and here). The uninterrupted peaceful transfer of power from Washington to Obama is truly a remarkable thing in the annals of human governance and, as such, the pageantry of the day is wholly justified. It is, without doubt, made even more significant that this day we have inaugurated a person of African-American parentage. Regardless of one’s partisan predilections, one has to be a historical illiterate not to understand the profound importance and significance of that fact.
Watching the celebration of America that is today’s inauguration festivities, one thing strikes — the difference between our version of patriotism and the Right’s.
For the Right, it’s jingoistic “USA! USA! WE’RE NUMBER ONE AND WILL KICK YOUR ASS!” It’s alway us versus someone else. It’s confrontational.
Our version of patriotism is a celebration of what makes our nation great. It’s the diversity, our people, our communities. Rather than confrontational, it’s communitarian.
We don’t need to start wars and kick someone’s ass to feel proud to be American.
–Shaun Mullen recalls another special inauguration, 48 years ago…
People have asked me since the election how I will approach the Obama presidency, but it’s really not that much of a mystery. I’m not going to be rooting for his failure, because I’m rooting for America. I believe most people feel the same way; Obama won the election and for better or worse, he’s our president. But that doesn’t mean that any of us will sit quietly for the next four years or the next four days.
The campaign is over, and now Obama has to govern, which means he has to start backing policies and initiatives that will reveal himself and his direction very clearly. If Obama really wants to succeed in restoring the economy and creating jobs, he’ll have to find ways to motivate capital back into action — which will mean keeping taxes low, especially on capital-gains rates, and cutting government intervention. Policies which confiscate capital will make the situation worse, and I will point that out as often and as vociferously as possible.
….Best of luck, President Obama. My prayers are with you, for support and wisdom as you assume the burden of this office and lead our country. When you fail to provide that leadership or demonstrate wisdom, though, don’t expect me to be silent. I’m rooting for America, not the coach.
I wonder if I wasn’t the only person who found President Obama’s speech personally moving and inspiring. Faced with so many unknowns and scary times, his message of pressing on, and being brave and courageous and curious and ever-hopeful, ever-ready to turn the tide… I felt a conviction that all this will turn out okay. In my own life and in America.
I was so proud this morning, standing in the office training room watching the swearing-in, surrounded by my incredibly diverse coworkers, all of us wiping away tears and looking at each other with huge smiles and waves of hope surging through our collective hearts.
The speech, I thought, was a sometimes-dissonant, sometimes-successful attempt to marry expansiveness and sobriety. The language of realism was woven throughout – “our collective failure to make hard choices … the time has come to set aside childish things …the challenges we face … will not be met easily or in a short span of time” – and there was, as Maggie Gallagher put it, an “old-school Protestant” element to much of Obama’s rhetoric, from the calls to duty and responsibility, to the promise to marry “hope and virtue,” to the praise for the work ethic and criticisms of ” those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.” But time and again, Obama pivoted from this theme to the sort of begin-the-world-anew rhetoric that we’ve come to expect from all our presidents, liberal and conservative alike – promising that hard choices are really false choices, that pragmatism can overcome partisanship, that there’s no technological hurdle that Science can’t leap, and that all those nameless “cynics” who worry about hubris, overreach and decline don’t understand that in the brave new age of Obama, their pessimistic instincts “no longer apply.” His description of our straits was sometimes Carteresque, in other words – but his prognosis tilted, inevitably, toward a liberal version of Morning in America.
But the real message of the day was…the message. There are two things that Barack Obama wants America and the world to know, and he delivered it with great power. First and foremost, the old America is back, the America that respects science and invention — and human rights. Many of us have waited eight long years to hear a commander-in-chief utter these words:
“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”
The problem is those eight destructive years have also made Obama’s task so much harder — and so much of his speech needed to focus on the sacrifices and tough decisions ahead. In many ways, the 44th president closed the door on the philosophy of Reaganism that was ushered in by the 40th, a turning away from easy decisions to led to a national borrowing bender that we need to begin paying back:
“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”
Today was the easy part. The difficult task starts tomorrow.
Sure, some people still want to party and buy their Obama souvenirs and keep the entertaining rallies going. Fine. But President Obama served notice – well-written, well-delivered notice, I thought – that he has moved on. That those of us who work hard in relative obscurity should continue to do so, that the traditional American path of self-improvement while watching out for the guy next to you, was still open – but also that the party is over.
Today’s address was a speech for our times: down times, difficult days, times when the only choice is between hard work and awful, rotting, dispiriting decline. The dreary media rooting section wanted dramatic rhetoric, another new frontier. But what we saw was fear itself: not irrational panic, but the tough-minded recognition that this country should fear what may come next – and face it squarely. You can’t print it on a CNN t-shirt or some NBC News commemorative pin, but this rang true: “Everywhere we look,” said President Obama. “There is work to be done.”
–P.J. Media’s legendary Stephen Green, aka Vodkapundit, did “drunk blogging” from Washington. Here is a small part:
10:43AM Good speech. A little something for everybody, which is fine for a inaugural speech. The trouble comes tomorrow or the next day, when President Obama has to make a decision and piss somebody off. Maybe everybody. Obama hasn’t had to do that yet, which is why we usually pick our presidents out of governor’s mansions instead of the Senate.
…10:25AM This is an interesting speech. Maybe even a revealing one. Obama sounds the most liberal on issues where he’s least likely to do anything, such as finding something to replace oil all of a sudden. And on fake issues, like “world peace” and “free hugs for poor people in foreign lands” or whatever. He sounds the most conservative, sometimes even neoconnish, on issues of substance. Let’s hope he governs like he speaks.
Cartoon by Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune
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