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.

Ron Edmonds/AP
President Obama's inaugural address, delivered at the US Capitol Building Jan. 20, contained some pointed references to Bush administration policies.

Historians may remember Barack Obama’s inaugural address as a good speech, well delivered, a call to the United States to rise and fight its troubles. They might say it was unifying, a break with the past, a clever attempt to pull the Democratic Party toward the political center.

They could say all those things. But inaugural speeches, if they’re remembered at all, get one line in the books. FDR told us not to fear. JFK told us not to ask what our country could do for us. And President Obama? His speech occurred.

Millions of people did not jam Washington to hear Obama’s ideas about Afghanistan. They wanted to see the first African-American president with their own eyes. These are the words they came for: “... a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

After he said that, the crowd roared so loudly that for a moment you thought they could hear it back in Illinois.

In general, Obama’s speech marked a high ceremony with dignity. It soared, enough. It talked of today’s troubles but offered hope for tomorrow and aimed for a boost in morale.

“It did what an inaugural speech is supposed to do,” says Leo Ribuffo, a history professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

The new president’s words describing the current economic crisis were fairly tough. He ascribed it to “greed and irresponsibility on the part of some,” but he also hit “our collective failure to make hard choices.”

Ever since John Kennedy called a generation to serve its country, the call for national rededication has become an important element of the civil religion that is US political ceremony. Obama did this deftly, calling on the nation to “set aside childish things” and to begin the work of remaking America.
“For everywhere we look, there is work to be done,” he said.

By putting the bad economy in the context of a need for national renewal, and by intimating that this renewal will take some time, the president may have skillfully deflected the notion that his very election – and perhaps a quick $800 billion stimulus package – will pull the economy out of its spiral by March.

In any case, that is what Gerald Shuster, an expert in presidential rhetoric and political communication at the University of Pittsburgh, suggests.

“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.

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.

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