In his Inaugural Address, President Barack Obama confounded all conventional expectations while soothing the fears of worried conservatives.
Based upon the big moments of his campaign, many observers expected a speech of scary, sweeping, socialistic substance written in a glittering, epic, eloquent and indelible style. Instead, the new president delivered a puzzling address of mostly reassuring substance, but worded in a pedestrian, platitudinous and occasionally clumsy style.
First, the good news about the speech: President Obama explicitly and forcefully distanced himself from the far-left “peace activists” who provided his drive for the presidency with much of its initial energy and urgency.
Near the very beginning of the Inaugural Address, Mr. Obama stated simply and clearly: “Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.” With these words, he effectively rebuked all those in the Democratic Party who insist that our struggles against terrorism amount to a “phony war,” or that George W. Bush exaggerated the menace we face in order to seize power and advance imperialistic neo-con agenda.
Later, the new president sent an unmistakable signal to all those at home and abroad who expect him to retreat from confronting evil, or surrender to bullies, or apologize for the foreign policy of his predecessor. “With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet,” he declaimed. “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.”
Similar words could have been spoken by John McCain or George W. Bush himself , as President Obama pointedly declined to provide either comfort or encouragement to the America-bashing cadres of “Code Pink” or “The World Can’t Wait.” (Who continued to busy themselves with anti-Bush “shoe-throwing” demonstrations on the day before the inauguration).
Meanwhile, the big speech also reassured Joe the Plumber and other nervous free-marketeers that careless campaign rhetoric about “spreading the wealth” might not, after all, constitute a major priority for the Obama administration. In his presentation’s single strongest paragraph, Mr. Obama insisted that “the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”
He went on to explain that “the question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”
Unfortunately, the citation of these unexpectedly moderate thematic highlights makes the address seem more coherent and effective than it was; for most of the speech, “Obama the Eloquent” offered little more than a clunky, cliché-ridden ramble, leaving the world to wonder what underlying message (if any) he meant to convey.
Many commentators noted the lack of a memorable sentence or phrase by which historians will remember this address – no “We are all Democrats, We Are All Federalists,” no “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” no “The Only Thing We Have to Fear…,” no “Ask not what your country can do for you…,” no “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The closest thing to a distinctive and repeatable rhetorical flourish involved the kind of all-purpose “let’s get to work” exhortation that might have suited any president in any situation, as Mr. Obama promised: “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
In fact, Bill Clinton sounded strikingly similar themes in his first Inaugural Address sixteen years ago, when he pledged “to renew America.” In fact, he returned repeatedly to that vague and gaseous vow at various points n his text and even used the phrase as a title for that mostly-forgotten bit of presidential posturing. In contrast, Obama attempted no title (as he had with his celebrated “More Perfect Union” address in Philadelphia) and no unifying theme to give consistent flavor to his meandering smorgasbord of feel-good tropes, most of them more reminiscent of Fourth of July boilerplate (“For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the west”) than appropriate to a rousing declaration of purpose for a new administration.
His aides and advisors suggested the day before the speech that its over-arching meaning involved the proclamation of a “new era of responsibility” but the only invocation of that phrase constituted the most confounding (and even illiterate) passage in recent inaugural history.
“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility,” President Obama declared, “a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world….”
What, precisely, do these tired words mean?
How would the President define our “duties to ourselves” --- to brush our teeth, to exercise regularly, to avoid contracting sexually transmitted disease? And what are the duties of “every American” to “the world”? Does this suggest that we must support the U.N., or give generously to international charities, or drive more fuel efficient vehicles, or all of the above?
When his text elaborates on these “duties” that characterize our “new era of responsibility,” Mr. Obama says merely that they are “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.”
This rhetoric counts as worse than empty and meaningless (what is the “difficult task” to which we give “our all”?) but even sinks to the level of embarrassing grammatical sloppiness. A decent editor would instantly correct the conclusion of Mr. Obama’s paragraph to read that “there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit …as giving our all to a difficult task,” or else modifying it to declare that “there is nothing more satisfying to the spirit…than giving our all to a difficult task.” As any middle school English teacher (yes, I plied that trade more than thirty years ago) could explain, the “nothing so satisfying” simply doesn’t fit with “than giving our all.”
Additionally, in this tortured and utterly hopeless swamp of a sentence, there’s a glaring disagreement between “spirit” (which is singular) and “giving our all” (which is plural, obviously).
Given that dozens of advisors and wordsmiths either helped to craft or at least reviewed the most momentous utterance of the President’s life so far, and given that he has always made a fetish of promising educational rigor and excellence, this shabby writing becomes inexplicable if not inexcusable. At least his notorious previous puzzlement “We are the change we have been waiting for!” brought a Zen-like mystery to its inscrutability. Here, the wording counts as not just imprecise but downright puerile.
In other words, Barack Obama hardly lived up to his advance-billing as an immortal rhetorician in the tradition of Lincoln and Churchill. Several weeks before the speech, Sandy Grady in USA TODAY enthused that the president-elect’s words “were glorious and lyrical as a jazz solo in a 2 a.m. nightclub....It’s a relief to have a president who can use language as precisely as a concert violinist playing a Bach sonata….Obama will be the best combination writer-orator in more than a century.”
This means that Grady predicted that Obama’s eloquence would exceed that of Woodrow Wilson (a lousy president but a remarkably gifted writer), FDR, Truman, JFK, Nixon (another controversial chief executive who could write memorable speeches on big occasions), and Ronald Reagan.
In the aftermath of the new president’s disappointing inaugural rhetoric, this prophecy looks every bit as ridiculous as the cultish songs and videos by besotted Hollywood celebs who pledge to become loyal “servants to our president.”
Even so, the mundane verbiage of his speech couldn’t destroy the undeniable grandeur of the occasion that called it forth. Yes, most of the nation thrilled to a fresh start with a dynamic new leader, the obvious (and endlessly celebrated) racial breakthrough that his ascension validated, and a smooth, cordial transfer of power, even as it struggled to remember anything truly significant orator Obama actually managed to say.