Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Why Obama's Inaugural Addess Was Better Than the Pundits Credit

I've heard many pundits calling Obama's speech today lackluster. But many writers are praising it, and here's why.

I'm learning that Obama is smarter at speech making than most pundits give him credit for. He doesn't always have to deliver a "knock out" speech with easy soundbites. Instead, he carefully determines the occasion and delivers the type of speech needed for the political moment. When he's in trouble over race, he delivers an inspiring call to move beyond race. When he's accepting the nomination for a tough partisan fight with a divided party, he gives a workmanlike speech that's designed to carefully move voters having trouble warming up to him.

Obama doesn't redeliver his last speech, or the speech you might expect. Instead, he thinks two moves down the road and delivers the speech that's necessary.

In that regard, today's speech - as a launch to four tough years of ambitious policy - may have seemed a bit more proletarian than one might expect, but its overall effect was excellent. He crafted together a call back to history to invoke the spirit of America to begin to elicit broad support for a difficult and all-encompassing agenda, and at the same time, laid the groundwork for the specific policy areas he will be striving to change. Of all the Presidential examples, his speech was closest to Kennedy's - asking us to turn a page and to contribute new efforts towards citizenship.

Being in the thick of history, I think it's hard to see immediately what lines will be remembered by future generations. But let me hazard a guess about some of the more overlooked lines that may gain resonance over Obama's administration.

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works" - of all the things that embody the promise of Obama, it's the idea of moving past the entrenched political ideologies of the past forty years. This sentence simply summarizes both a new governing philosophy as well as the idea of a new generation's approach.

"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 embodies not only the hope of Americans, but the hope of the world. As a President that has the potential to restore the world's romance with America, this sentence may be long remembered as one of Obama's enduring legacies. "America is a friend" is not a phrase that has been heard much lately, but may well be a staple of the next four years.

"In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come." Yes, this is the peroration, the summation of Obama's speech. But throughout, he touches on the theme of hope and virtue: hope that we can overcome our current problems; virtue that is the source of our better angels and the promise of America. These words sum up aptly what Obama calls for in our cultural zeitgeist as we enter this new era.

Yes, it is hard to pick out the sentences that will stand the test of time. But read the whole speech: it is remarkable for how it sets out a mood and a moment, how it weaves its themes of importance and humility while addressing the pressing issues of the day. As a speech that places the everyday concerns our immediate time into the resonance of history, it would be hard to do much better.

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