As Barack Obama walked through the hallway toward the platform where he would be administered the oath of office he was noticeably somber. It appeared as though the weight of the world rested on his shoulders, and it was. Gone were the gregarious smile of the campaign trail and the twinkling eyes of his victory speech. In their place was a near frown of concern. I knew then his inaugural address was going to stray from his pattern of rousing speeches, but how?
Recognizing I am in the minority and some may take offense, I risk stating that I was disappointed with Barack Obama’s inaugural address. Don’t get me wrong; for the most part I liked the speech. Having now read it a couple of times, I have grown even more impressed. Although considerably longer, the pace and pattern and use of imagery remind me of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which I suspect was his intention given all of the public reference to Lincoln. It was in many ways an inspiring presentation that challenged us as Americans to face our grave problems together with creativity; drawing upon the core values of the founders of our nation we must fulfill their dream.
The speech revealed Obama to be an “essentialist,” to borrow an old term from educational philosophy. Essentialists believe there are essential truths that must be preserved and passed on to the next generation. They also believe those truths should guide the application of science and technology for the betterment of humanity. In recent weeks our new president has been described as a pragmatist by Republicans and Democrats who have met with him during the transition period. Pragmatists reject the concept of eternal truth; for them truth is what works in the moment. He sounded like a pragmatist when he said “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.” However, in this he was not asserting “truth is what works,” but the inverse, what works is true. Truth (and goodness) is not limited to that which works but that which works is true (and good). For him there are enduring values that must guide the work we do.
Obama laid out the values he holds, “all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.“ Those values draw upon the Declaration of Independence; they are American to their core. Some of his values are more sophistic in character: “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.” And some of his values represent a more liberal social agenda. For example, government exists to help “families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.”
His pragmatic expression of essentialism is best seen when he stated “Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.” In a similar passage he asserted “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.“
As another example he stated, “as for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils 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.”
I greatly appreciate this emphasis on the values that have made this nation great. I also affirm his emphasis on remembering those who carried the torch before us. Born in the western expansion of the nineteenth century and renewed in the cold war tensions of the twentieth, some would say essentialism is one of America’s greatest contributions to humanity (others would bypass it for jazz). If not, it is at the least a reflection of “the American way” at its best, ingenuity tied to necessity and a sense of destiny.
My disappointments with the speech were two-fold. First, I was disappointed with the tone. This has as much to do with delivery as with content. I was looking forward to an inspiring message that also motivated toward specific action. I expected a speech in the pattern of FDR, Kennedy, and Regan; one that cast a vision of a transformed/renewed America. Those special inaugural speeches captured the human imagination for a better world, “the best is yet to come.” They also identified the changes that must take place and offered proposals for how they would be achieved. I experienced this speech as a convicting sermon without an altar call or a plan for discipleship, a half-time locker-room speech without the new game plan.
In short, I was hoping for more than I got. Based upon his past keynote speeches he was able to deliver what I expected, a speech that would capture the hopes of all with a vision of what we could become. It appears to me he opted for a more philosophical, subdued and less poetic style. He was more somber than inspiring. Perhaps he was seeking to be more presidential in these uncertain times. Perhaps his lack of specificity was an intentional political move to avoid sparking congressional debate before he was ready to reveal specifics. I fear he missed a critical opportunity to start the train moving. This beautiful oration challenged us to believe change is on the way and that we can and must participate in it, but it fell short of mapping out what the changes will look like and what they will cost us. It lacked the power of persuasive rhetoric to motivate people to seek the change that is needed.
Perhaps the significance of the day, an African American is President of the United States of America, will carry us forward. I just wanted more. I wanted President Obama to be at his rhetorical best. I wanted a speech that a generation would remember and quote. It was an inspiring and insightful challenge; it could have been more and it will be a long time before we have another President who is capable of the rhetorical masterpiece I desired.
However, my greatest problem with the address was that President Obama renewed his call for change in a way that dishonored President Bush. That was safe because the vast majority of Americans disapprove of Bush, but it was inappropriate for this occasion and unnecessary for his purposes. I am specifically referring to the following lines which I and a number of commentators viewed as being aimed at Bush.
“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.” “But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
I expect a candidate to make those kinds of statements. I expect a president to bend over backwards to avoid dishonoring his/her predecessor no matter how great his/her disdain for the person. (My impression is that Obama does have a strong disdain for Bush.) The problems we face can easily be identified without recriminations toward persons. The irony is that in his assertion that we have opted to move beyond recriminations he was in fact recriminating President Bush. It is not enough to omit direct insults; noble leaders avoid assault by implication. It is not enough to bury specific innuendo in generic characterizations; wise leaders find ways to truly honor their opponents. In this he belittled himself and weakened his presidency. Conservatives, especially those close to Bush, will remember this speech not for its beauty or power of persuasion, but for its assault on their friend. And at some point they will be less inclined to compromise when Obama needs them the most.
In the century before Christ Cicero wrote that "the purpose of education is to produce men who speak well." A century later Quintillian, a contemporary of Paul, offered the corrective "the purpose of education is to produce good men who speak well." There can be no doubt Barack Obamma is a man who speaks well. Prior to this speech I was convinced he is an exceptionally good man. In light of this speech there is a shadow across my estimate of his goodness. I would add a couple of other values to Obama's list of those held by the founders of our nation: honor and respect.
Having said all of this, I remain optimistic our new president will be effective in leading our nation in addressing the urgent issues we face. I also remain thrilled we as a nation have passed this milestone. But, I do encourage his admirers to prepare themselves for the fact that he is human after all. This is the first stumble; it will not be the last. The good news for him and perhaps for all of us is that most of America missed this one; we were caught-up in the promise and possibility of better things to come.