Charles Krauthammer

WASHINGTON -- Fascinating speech. It was so rhetorically flat, so lacking in rhythm and cadence, one almost has to believe he did it on purpose. Best not to dazzle on Opening Day. Otherwise, they'll expect magic all the time.

The most striking characteristic of Barack Obama is not his nimble mind, engaging manner or wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. It's the absence of neediness. He's Bill Clinton, master politician, but without the hunger.

Clinton craves your adulation (the source of all his troubles). Obama will take it, but he can leave it too. He is astonishingly self-contained. He gives what he must to advance his goals, his programs, his ambitions. But no more. He has no need to.

Which seems to me the only way to understand the mediocrity of his inaugural address. The language lacked lyricism. The content had neither arc nor theme: no narrative trajectory like Lincoln's second inaugural; no central idea, as was (to take a lesser example) universal freedom in Bush's second inaugural.

This is odd because Obama is so clearly capable of more. But he decisively left behind the candidate who made audiences swoon and the impressionable faint. And that left the million-plus on the Mall, while unshakably euphoric about the moment, let down and puzzled by the speech. He'd given them nothing to cheer or chant, nothing to sing.

Candidate Obama had promised the moon. In soaring cadences, he described a world laid waste by Bush, a world that President Obama would redeem -- bringing boundless hope and universal health, receding oceans and a healing planet.

But now that Obama was president, the redeemer was withholding, the tone newly sober, even dour. The world was still in Bushian ruin, marked by "fear ... conflict ... discord ... petty grievances and false promises ... recriminations and worn-out dogmas." But now no more the prospect of magical restoration. In a stunning exercise in lowered expectations, Obama offered not quite blood, sweat and tears, but responsibility, work, sacrifice and service.

When candidate Obama said "it's not about me, it's about you," that was sheer chicanery. But now he means it, because he really cannot part the waters. Hence his admonition to rely not on the "skill or vision of those in high office," but on "We the People."


Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.

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