The National Catholic Review

President Barack Obama’s inaugural address was surprisingly leaden. It did not soar like his "Yes, We Can" speech after losing the New Hampshire primary, nor did it chart his plans for governance as did his convention speech in Denver. Most strangely, it did not seem to capture the history of the moment the way his election night speech did.

Part of the problem is with the nature of such an address. This was the speech of a head of state, not a head of government, even though the President serves both functions. But, presidential oratory only succeeds in head of state mode at times of national tragedy. After the space shuttle Challenger disaster, Ronald Reagan gave his best speech as Bill Clinton did in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. Inaugurals are festive occasions, and as we saw today, the impulse to speak for the nation often leads to the kinds of abstractions that do not make for great oratory. Still, one need not be so opaque about historical illusions: If you want to refer to Washington crossing the Delaware, speak of Washington crossing the Delaware not of "the coldest of months" and "the icy river."

One of the chief virtues of Obama’s campaign speeches was that they did not need flights of poetry. They were often quite prosaic. "Yes We Can" is not the most lyric of lines. But, he matched policy and purpose in those speeches, and he inspired not only in his presence but in his sensibility that government must be a force for good in our national life again, that governance was a moral act, that we were not at the mercy of economic laws made by the gods but could yet again be masters of our nation’s future through systematic, thoughtful analysis of our problems.

Obama’s speech contained a lot of spinach. Alan Wolfe thinks this was the primary problem with the speech – too much duty and not enough hope – and I think he is largely correct. Obama’s campaign was about hope, about our ability as Americans to reach for the stars. Obama’s tone today was gloomy and foreboding, sounding more like a stern, unpleasant uncle than the smiling man who captivated the nation last year. He needed to inspire, not merely to lower expectations, to make his talk about values less vague and more precise, more concrete. The speech too often seemed like spinach pretending to be poetry.

Obama said that our problems, and our solutions, would require common effort, and the sight of crowds stretching the entire length of the Mall emphasized the small "d" democratic quality of the speech better than the words he chose. But, inaugurals do not merely commemorate the voters who choose: They commemorate the choice. Maybe Obama is a more humble man, but I yearned for some reiteration of Franklin Roosevelt’s line: "The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it." We may need to focus on our common responsibility, as President Obama suggested, but we want leadership too.

Sitting here not three hours since the speech was given, it is sad to think that I can’t recall a single line from memory. I suppose almost any collection of words was likely to be dwarfed by the historical enormity of the moment. And such a moment it was.

 

Comments

Anonymous | 1/21/2009 - 12:26pm
Think of all those people who stood in the cold and were disappointed at the poor performance of Obama. Historical speeches can make historical moments, but historical moments cannot make a speech historical.
Anonymous | 1/21/2009 - 10:48am
Thank you, Mr. Salvucci. This is the best response to the article thus far. Your succinct message aptly sums up our current situation, and to dwell on what some consider to be lack of memorable phrases from the speech or to whine about his resolve to change failed public policies because Mr. Bush was sitting there cetainly does not change the reasons for President Obama's election
Anonymous | 1/21/2009 - 5:23pm
I thought it was a fine and moving speech, and the thinly veiled rebuke to Bush policies was sadly deserved. We do not have to choose between security and freedom. As one, I suppose, of the "lefties" on this blog, I'll note that Obama does seem to be making a genuine effort to reach out to conservatives and Republicans. Some Republican senators were quoted as commenting that Obama had already sought their input more during the transition days than Bush had in the last few years. At any rate, all of us ought to be praying for him, his whole administration, and our country. Grant him courage when he is right and an open mind and heart when he's wrong.
Anonymous | 1/20/2009 - 9:39pm
What did you expect, ''This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him?'' The market closed under 8,000; we are headed for double-digit unemployment; the unwinding of credit card and personal debt has not even begun. Obama hit it right on the head. We have big problems--bigger than most of us recognize--and we are going to be forced to make some very hard choices over the next few years. It is refreshing to hear a politician suggest we can't have everything: telling us what we want to hear (''Deficits don't matter'') is a large part of how we ended up in this mess. No offense intended, but please grow up.
Anonymous | 1/20/2009 - 7:54pm
I think David Gergen put it best this afternoon. He said (and I'm paraphrasing here) that it wasn't a speech for the ages, but rather a speech for the moment. I think the American people were listening for Obama to address our more immediate concerns while putting them in a broader, more global context. That's a lot to do in 18 minutes!
Anonymous | 1/20/2009 - 4:47pm
All I know is that it sounded better than any of Bush's speeches. It is refreshing to hear eloquence and intelligence again without the ridiculous smirk.
Anonymous | 1/20/2009 - 4:19pm
Desperately trying to stay relevant are we? No one listens to the radical Right anymore . . . and never will again. The sad little group of Righties grasps at straws in an effort to be the slightest bit meaningful and fails. It's a great day for America and the world.
Anonymous | 1/20/2009 - 4:10pm
It was a good speech even if it was not his best speech.
Anonymous | 1/20/2009 - 3:27pm
Go back and read the text. There are some good things there.
Anonymous | 1/21/2009 - 10:35am
You don't get it, are you one of those that expects all of the answers to come from the government or are you one that offers some answers,, Clearly the answers for our problems have not all be identified, we know were in deep trouble but ONE common answer may not be the case. You need to decide up front which way do you chose to go. Do you complain or pick yourself up and dust yourself off.. its pretty direct I would say.
Anonymous | 1/21/2009 - 12:03pm
Obama’s Inauguration Speech: Disappointing Part 1 Obama’s inauguration expense of more than $170 million dollars, in the middle of recession, produced less crowd than Johnson Inaugural of 1.2 million people. Yet the mountain of fan fair, money, Hollywood celebrities and publicity produced a disappointing mouse! Rick Warren gave more hope to the religious right an Neo-cons than Obama’s disappointing and colorless speech. Obama has the makings of a great tele-prompter reader=orator, but his inaugural speech was not a great oration. It was well-delivered, but it consisted of a hodgepodge of themes, rhetoric, injunctions, and applause lines that did not address directly to the crisis that the US and the world faces today. Obama’s Mountain of hope produced a disappointing and fearful mouse! Wall Street dropped more than 300 points because they saw no hope for real Change! Even after Obama got his wall Street 350 750 billions of “giveaway” Bail-out money, more in TARP money, and promised them 1. 3 trillion dollars of extra expenditure for road, bridges, infrastructures and Green Jobs to nowhere. As he was speaking instead of hope they saw despair and dumped their stocks because any one with economic 101 knows that borrowing from China to buy Chinese and Mexican industrial products and filling Wal-Mart with cheap goods at the expense of American jobs would lead to 13 trillion Dollars National Debt by the end of 2009, that in combination of budget deficit, Balance of Trade deficit would bring this great nation to is knees.
Anonymous | 1/20/2009 - 6:16pm
For the lefties on this blog, it's your time to shine. Now, prove to me that you can unite this divisive country within 4 year. Otherwise, BHO's speech is just another rah-rah speech. Also, on his own glorious day, it's shameful that BHO's made a cheap shot on GWB in front of million spectators. May be it's BHO's Freudian slip. For the righties on this blog, unite and force BHO to prove that he is the catalyst of change.
Anonymous | 1/20/2009 - 4:37pm
What could possibly be more soaring and exciting--regardless of the rhetoric--than knowing that our new President is whole-heartedly, implacably committed to the killing of as many babies as possible. In the womb, in the birth canal--and failing that, in the utility closet with the dirty linen. And he has promised to sign FOCA--which will force Catholic hospitals to end their bigoted, sectarian refusal to kill babies. Or they can shut down. Either way, a great leap forward for the Catholic Church in America. The American Catholic Church applauds the killing of babies! This way lies enlightenment and progress!
Anonymous | 1/20/2009 - 4:27pm
Whatever. This was a great day and a great speech. My heart tells me it is the beginning of a new era of life and truth for our country.
Anonymous | 1/20/2009 - 4:26pm
His digs at Bush were shameful. Look, you drank the Kool-Aid; he doesn't need to hypnotize you anymore. Thus, the despot begins to emerge. We have a Marxist president; get used to it.
Anonymous | 1/20/2009 - 3:54pm
I think President Obama's speech struck the right note for these troubled times. At first, I also eagerly awaited a soaring, memorable piece of rhetoric. But perhaps this was a case of (to paraphrase the Stones): "you can't always get what you want; you get what you need."
Anonymous | 1/20/2009 - 5:37pm
Maybe he decided that this should be a "dose of reality" speech rather than soaring rhetoric, which he has given us on many occasions. After today's Kumbaya ends at midnight, tomorrow's cold dawn will reveal, once again, the almost insurmountable pile of problems left for him and us by the last 8 years of near-total incompetence. Rhetoric is fine, and we know he has that capability in spades, but American needs to wake up to the fact of the need to do the unpopular by the unwilling. After Obama makes the hard and oft-times unpopular decisions, he'll also remember old Shirelle's song: "tonight you're mine completele, but will you love me tomorrow?" Well, America: who will be love: Santa Claus or Mr. Reality?