Barack Obama is inviting the world to compare him not just to good presidents but to the greatest in American history.
There can be majesty in invoking past presidents and the Founding Fathers. But Obama's quotations and allusions in his inaugural address served only to highlight the flatness of his own prose. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," he intoned, repeating the echoing words of the Declaration of Independence. What followed was: "Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they've never been self-executing." Clunk. "Self-executing" is a word best left to legal documents. It has as much poetry as a filing cabinet. As for "never-ending journey," it's a phrase that belongs in the juvenile fiction section -- if there.
Obama's second inaugural poached lines from Lincoln's speeches. The effect was like inserting snatches of Mozart into a Mariah Carey song. Obama said: "Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free." He was paraphrasing two Lincoln quotes -- one from the Cooper Union speech and this one, from the second inaugural: "Yet if God wills that it continue until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said: 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"
Obama's speech also seemed to allude to Lincoln's message to Congress before signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln said: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. ... As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country." Obama, able to wring banality from the best material, said: "But we have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges, that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action." Clunk.