Evaluating Obama’s inaugural address is an inherently subjective process, of course, and no two people will necessarily render the same judgment. Moreover, as several of you pointed out in your very insightful comments to my most recent post, evaluations may change, depending on how the Obama presidency plays out. Nonetheless, the chattering class has rendered their initial assessments, and the consensus seems to be that although it was an effective speech – above “average” for these types of addresses – it did not quite rise to the level one might hope for given the quality of several of Obama’s previous speeches and the significance of this particular occasion (see, for example, here and here and here and here and here.)
If this is true, what might explain why Obama’s speech is not generating the type of acclaim associated with the first inaugural addresses of FDR, Reagan or JFK? One can cite a number of plausible explanations. To begin, it was a relatively lengthy address compared to its more celebrated counterparts; at 2,421 words, it was only slightly longer than Reagan’s first inaugural, but almost 30% longer than FDR’s, 80% longer than JFK’s, and 3 ½ times longer than Lincoln’s second inaugural. In part, this length made it harder to remember a single memorable line. Instead, the pundits cited different “takeaway lines”. I thought the reference to his father’s facing racial discrimination was the most memorable line – “This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall; and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” But others have cited different lines. In short, there was no equivalent to “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country”. Second, the speech read as if the author (and here I suspect the hand of Obama’s chief speechwriter, 27-year old Jon Favreau) had sought inspiration from some of the best inaugural addresses; I saw allusions to passages from inaugural addresses by FDR, JFK, LBJ, Lincoln and – gasp – even a (non-inaugural) speech by Jimmy Carter. (If you were in my presidency course, surely you blanched when Obama cited a “sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.” Shades of Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech that claimed Americans suffered from “a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.” For Carter’s critics, of course, the crisis was high gas prices and rising unemployment – not a flagging American spirit! Of course, Favreau wasn’t alive when Carter gave that speech…. .) More generally, because these previous speeches accentuated different themes, drawing on all of them obscured Obama’s message rather than clarifying it.
In the end, however, I believe the major reason why Obama’s speech missed the mark is because there was no central overarching principle around which the words could cohere. Instead, the speech made two essential claims about Obama’s presidency: “we are not Bush” and “change is coming”. But it avoided specifying the hard choices that will constitute that change. Instead, Obama split the differences; he reached out an unclenched hand to dictators AND threatened terrorists with destruction; promised to protect liberties AND maintain national security; to regulate the marketplace without endangering capitalism; to remind us what government can do while emphasizing our historic commitment to private volunteerism; emphasized the role of religion in our nation without forgetting a shout out to “nonbelievers”. By appearing to embrace all things, then, the speech ultimately emphasized none.
This is in sharp contrast to the “great” inaugural addresses: all emphasized a single specific theme that translated into a clear course of action. Roosevelt challenged the Congress to attack the economic crisis, and threatened to act unilaterally with bold experimentation if Congress failed to do so. Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s wordsmith, remembered that JFK eliminated almost any reference to domestic policy in order to focus on Americans’ need to sacrifice to win the Cold War. For Reagan, of course, it was a direct attack on the New Deal and big government. These speeches, then, told the American public what their presidency was about, and what to expect in the coming months and years.
In part, this lack of a single theme might reflect the contrasting messages Obama sought to convey. On the one hand, the inauguration celebrated the election of the first African-American president. On the other, it was a sober reminder that we live in perilous times. It was hard to play to both emotions in a single speech.
But the lack of a central theme might also signify a potentially deeper problem with Obama’s presidency: as yet, he does not know what it will be about. Change, yes – but in what form? We forget that until 9/11, the Bush presidency was still struggling to turn a vague commitment toward “compassionate conservatism” into a governing stance. The terrorist attacks gave his presidency a much different overriding purpose.
It may be that this is unfair to Obama; that although pragmatism and moderation does not lend itself to great speechmaking, it is the ideal approach to governing, particularly in the highly polarized partisan setting. Nonetheless, I can’t help believing that ultimately, Obama will need to grasp the nettle and begin making the hard choices that will define his administration. If he does, we may yet look back on Tuesday’s speech and find the as-yet unrecognized clues revealing the essence of the Obama presidency. We might then view it as a truly memorable inaugural address.