OBAMA’S SPEECH – AN ANALYSIS
YES WE CAN!!
More prose than poetry means: it’s time to get down to work.
A presidential inaugural address can be pitched either to the ages, replete with eternal verities, or to the particular moment, cataloguing the challenges of the day, but rarely to both. I think most of us expected the former from Barack Hussein Obama, whose most stirring oratories have certainly sung with ageless poetry. This speech had those moments, to be sure, and Obama from time to time reached back to Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and even to Paul the Apostle. But what was surprising was how rooted in the current moment the speech was.
Obama chose to speak in specific terms – one might even say programmatic ones – about the dire present moment and his plans for how to get out of it. Only a few minutes into the speech he was mentioning jobs, homes and healthcare, and building roads and bridges, and investing in new sources of energy and improving education. A few of the lines were so on-message that they would have worked well in a closing statement during a presidential debate.
There is precedent for this. Franklin Roosevelt’s inaugural addresses, his first and second ones in particular, were pitched directly at the moment Americans faced then. That we are in the midst of an economic crisis greater than any since Roosevelt’s time obviously motivated Obama to move his rhetoric in this direction. But I felt he may have pressed a little too far in that direction. When he mentioned “electric grids” and “digital lines,” he sounded like he has about a half a beat away from diving into a discussion of the competing merits of corn- versus switchgrass-based ethanol.
Another way in which the speech was geared toward the moment: it was, in parts, a coded but unmistakably clear denunciation of the Bush administration. “As for our common defense,” he said, “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” The line drew a big cheer from the nearly two-million-strong Obama enthusiasts on the mall, and they knew exactly what he meant: no more Guantanamos, no more torture, no more Dick Cheney-style governance (and the sight of Cheney in that wheelchair…what was he doing packing his own boxes anyway?). And how about the line about how America’s founding fathers “understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please?” Obama may be ready to cooperate with congressional Republicans, as he has often stated, but it has to be said that at least with regard to Bush and Cheney, even Obama’s penchant for post-partisanship clearly has its limits.
The speech’s most stirring passages were directed not to Americans but to the world, and here, I think the speech was more in line with the high expectations. Here, he moved away from Roosevelt and leaned more on John Kennedy’s 1961 address. His words “to the people of poor nations” were moving, and those addressed “to those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent” were stern. The world will be listening to this president with more care and respect than most, so one hopes that over the next four years those words are backed up by some actions.
If the speech was mildly underwhelming, I suppose I’d say this. There were many times during the campaign when I, and other political junkies of my acquaintance, thought Obama was screwing something up. A week or a month later, we almost invariably saw that maybe he was right after all. So maybe he thought, let’s put the poetry on the shelf. It’s time now to get to work. He’s got a lot of that ahead of him, so it’s understandable I suppose if that, not rhetoric, is what is foremost in his mind.