Inaugural Address Failed to Inspire

No new president has had a grander stage on Inauguration Day upon which to imprint his vision for America than Barack Obama. The crowds were astonishingly large — certainly more than a million and some estimates were closer to two million.


The dignitaries arrived to varying degrees of enthusiasm. Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were warmly welcomed while the elder President Bush and Barbara received tepid applause. Republican lawmakers were openly booed when announced, but this was to be expected. I would imagine Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the crowd by about 5,000 to 1. The Democrats had been out of power for eight years and they were bound and determined to have a good time — especially if it came at the expense of the GOP.

It was also to be expected that when President Bush arrived at the platform, there would be a demonstration of why President Obama’s grand plans for transforming American politics will probably fall flat on its keister. The boos, catcalls, and hissing that greeted the outgoing president may be considered disrespectful by some and definitely not in keeping with the spirit of the day. But Obama was to prove a little later that his supporters weren’t the only ones who seemed to forget that the campaign was over and he had won.

Rick Warren gave an impassioned but overly long invocation. This part made me think it was written by Obama’s people:

When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone, forgive us. When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us. And as we face these difficult days ahead, may we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches and civility in our attitudes — even when we differ.


“Civility in our attitudes” was something lacking in the classless bunch who had just welcomed President Bush to the stage. It wasn’t the entire crowd that sang “Hey, Hey, goodbye” in a mocking tone. But claiming to be Obama supporters while disrespecting the office he was about to enter made for a rather jarring addition to the festivities.

After Aretha Franklin serenaded the crowd with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” in her soulful style, Vice President Biden took his oath (a ripple of amusement ran through the crowd when he said his middle name — Robinette). This was followed by one of the most talented groups of musicians ever assembled; Itzhak Perlman on violin, Yo Yo Ma on cello, Garbriela Montero on piano, and Anthony McGill on clarinet played what, to my mind, was an uninspired arrangement by composer/conductor John Williams of a piece by Aaron Copeland. It was flawlessly performed but strangely flat and unemotional for such a grand occasion.

Then it was President Obama’s turn to take the oath. Much has been made of it, but I could care less whether Obama or Roberts blew it. I note that an argument on blogs is raging about who is at fault, which only goes to show you there wasn’t much else to write about. It’s a silly, stupid subject to try and score partisan points over — especially when the speech that followed was such a disappointment.

I can’t find any historians who are saying it was “great” or even “near great.” Even Democratic speechwriters thought it fell short of inspiring. All agree there were no memorable lines. About the best that can be said of it was “workmanlike” and “purposeful.”


And it was tough. It was especially tough on George W. Bush, who sat while Obama dressed him down in front of the world:

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.

They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy, guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We’ll begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard- earned peace in Afghanistan.

And this:

Our founding fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.

Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.

And so, to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.

Obama also barely acknowledged Bush at the beginning of the speech, merely thanking him for his service and for being so nice during the transition. Dick Cheney received no recognition at all. Some conservatives seem a little put off by this, but I checked George Bush’s first inaugural addresss in 2001 and he also simply thanked Bill Clinton for his service.


But it was the stinging rebuke — both overt and inferred — in those words that showed Obama has yet to throw off the mantle of candidate and accept the cloak of leadership. Implying that Iraq was not a “just” cause may be good politics if you are trying to be nominated. But as a commander in chief, he might want to temper that rhetoric since he is asking American soldiers to stay in Iraq until it is safe to leave. Beyond that, how one views American policy if the president sees things through the lens of “humility and restraint” might be interesting. If you are supporting al-Qaeda and wish to attack us, I’m not sure. I suppose you might be breathing a sigh of relief, but I’m not a terrorist and don’t support them.

There were plenty of spots in the speech where I though Obama nailed it. Bill Bennett on CNN talked of Obama invoking “old values” like honesty, responsibility, hard work, and fair play. How you can square a lot of that with $8 trillion in bailouts is another mystery. But at least he touched the right chords.

I particularly liked this passage:

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less.

It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.

Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor — who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died in places Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.


Connecting with our past is something we do far too little of today, and the way history is taught in our schools the storybook that is the American Narrative is given too short a shrift. Our past should inform our present. Remembering the sacrifices of those who built what we are charged to protect and expand helps bring us together — something that is going to be necessary if we are to get out of this financial mess we’re in.

The universal criticism of the speech was that it lacked a theme. For someone who prides himself — quite rightly — on his ability to write a good speech, this lack of an overarching theme was disappointing. Some have pointed to a thesis involving “responsibility” as something that defined the speech. I disagree if only because he mentioned responsibility only twice. It might be more accurate to define the speech as one of “redemption” rather than responsibility. His inferred criticism of Bush domestic policies (greed and inattention) and his foreign policies served as a basis for what he considers his mission: remaking America or “American renewal.”

Most inaugural speeches have been eminently forgettable, so Obama is not necessarily off to a bad start. How he turns some of that rhetoric into reality will determine his success — not whether he crafted a brilliant inaugural address.


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