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.