What Obama’s inaugural speech achieved – and what it didn’t
It was deft. It was dignified. It also aimed to lower Americans’ expectations for better times soon.
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“If you had 10 speakers up there, they all would have alluded to the fact that we’re facing crises. What Obama managed to do is manage our expectations” about quick solutions, says Dr. Shuster.Skip to next paragraph
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Obama’s speech evoked the words of three presidents in particular, according to Shuster. JFK was one. Some phrases echoed Lincoln. And Obama closed by quoting Thomas Paine's words of hope that George Washington ordered to be read at the low point of Valley Forge.
The new president continued a recent tradition by thanking his predecessor for service to the nation. Despite the gratitude, ex-President Bush might not have liked the speech.
“I was watching President Bush and he wasn’t smiling, and I could see why,” says Dr. Ribuffo. “He specifically criticized a lot of the Bush administration’s policies.”
Obama said he would “restore science to its rightful place” – foreshadowing a probable quick decision to allow federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, banned under the previous administration.
He said that “as for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals” – an indirect criticism of Bush administration interrogation and detention policies, and a line that drew another huge response from the crowd on the Mall.
The new chief executive also said the criteria by which government should be judged is not whether it is big or small, but whether it works.
Free markets can spin out of control, he said, “and ... a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.”
On the other hand, the speech contained phrases that could be seen as conservative, especially for a Democrat. For terrorists, Obama had these words: “We will defeat you.” In his closing, he emphasized values he said were old: “hard work and honesty, courage and fair play ... loyalty and patriotism.”
“It was nice to see a Democrat talk about tradition, values, and freedom,” says Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution here. “Obama seeks to reposition his party and his presidency along principles that will make for long-term success.”
The president also set some ambitious markers by which to judge his administration’s success. He talked of harnessing the sun and wind to fuel cars and run factories, transforming America’s schools and universities, helping poor nations to flourish, and other immense tasks.
On Jan. 21, he will sit in the Oval Office and begin trying to effect that change. It’s a cliché that can be said about many transitions in national life, but it remains true: Now the hard part begins.