Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Barack Obama Inauguration Address Autopsy

The inaugural address is the most and least significant expression of a presidency. Delivered at the opening of a new term, at the close of a bloated ceremony, it articulates a four-year agenda in the vaguest possible terms. It states a President’s primary interests and establishes a set of pledges to which he cannot be held accountable. It is a vision of the future, written for the history books, and expressed in a language of familiar metaphors and century-old quotations.

It is too early to know the full significance of Barack Obama’s inaugural address, of course. Like all presidential speeches, its ultimate value is determined less by the quality of its words than by the extent to which the words are corroborated by actions. Without the benefit of hindsight, the speech is little more than an oratorical inkblot in which every reader can find hope or gloom. Still, the search has value: detached from the civic spectacle and unprotected by the speaker’s magnetism, we can see the inaugural address not only as a declaration of intentions, but as a first glimpse into how they might be pursued.

Even at this early stage, there are some things we can make out. We can see who inspired President Obama (Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan) and whom he sought to inspire (Everyone). We can discern some objectives – re-activating the government and re-engaging the outside world – and identify a few tactics – appropriating the right’s cherished icons (the Founding Fathers, the constitution, God, and the military) to justify the left’s policy ambitions. Perhaps more than anything else, we can see in Barack Obama’s inaugural address a leadership quality which may ultimately define his presidency – the willingness to leverage good will to deliver bad news.

Delivered in an atmosphere of collective joy, the speech emphasizes anxiety. Written and performed by the nation’s pre-eminent motivational speaker, it advocates prudence over passion. Expected by many to announce a leftward shift, Obama’s inaugural address seizes the center, distributing comfort and discomfort to progressives and conservatives in equal measure. Newt Gingrich, the man who led the campaign to impeach the last Democratic president, raved about it. “Those could have been our words!” he told of group of Republicans, recommending that each carry a laminated copy. On the left, British writer Robert Fisk pronounced the speech “a real ‘B-minus’ in the Middle East,” and chastized Obama for neglecting to mention Gaza. With an almost palpable sense of disappointment, the address was depicted in the press as anything from “low-key and earnest” (New York Times) to “business-like and somber” (BBC). Having trained the world to expect exhilaration, Obama delivered warnings and measured reassurance.

Immediately following eight years of wishful thinking interrupted by occasional catastrophe, Obama’s willingness to tell Americans things they don’t like to hear seems like an act of heroism, but, ultimately, the President will be judged on whether he can maintain this quality when his popularity inevitably wanes. In the meantime, an international audience and national jury are left to ponder the opening statement of an ex-lawyer whose success depends, for the first time in his career, more on his actions than his words.

My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.

After a perfunctory acknowledgement of his predecessor, Obama unleashes a torrent of water imagery. The use of meteorological metaphors is a time-tested technique for giving contemporary troubles a sense of grandeur. “The still waters of peace” recalls the first two lines of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters.” The “raging storm” contains an even stronger Biblical connotation, but rather than expanding this image to its full apocalyptic dimensions, Obama dispels it by invoking “forbearers” and “founding documents.” In the process he prepares the ground for one of the central constructs of the speech – the continuity of his ambitions with enduring American principles.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

This seemingly banal motivational sentiment reveals Obama’s command of the bland. The term “this generation” is loaded. Considered in the span of all American history, Obama could be referring to everyone who happens to be alive in 2009 and thus has a stake in the country as it currently exists. Most would read it this way, but for the millions of young voters who helped bring Obama to power, “this generation” refers to a new political presence that is working to undo decades of baby boomer dysfunction.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.

Although Obama’s address has clear precedents – Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration in its emphasis on reconciliation, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second in its advocation of active government and shared purpose, John F Kennedy’s in its outward orientation – Obama’s is unusual in its insistence on shared blame. During America’s most severe (as of this writing) economic crisis, FDR pinned the nation’s problems on “blind economic forces and blindly selfish men.” In his inaugural address forty years later, Ronald Reagan explained the country’s economic turmoil as a product of a “government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed” and demanded those blind economic forces be set free. Faced with a crisis quickly surpassing Reagan’s, Obama offers no single culprit or solution.

Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet. These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land – a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Paradise Lost: America is a nation founded on the notion of perpetural progress. It is not cognitively prepared for massive regress – a fact that gives it both the naïveté and optimism that older cultures pity and admire. The suggestion that the next generation should expect less triggers existential angst that transcends the statistical indications of economic depression.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met.

Having stimulated vulnerability, Obama attempts to reassure with an obvious “Yes we can” applause-getter.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

Another harmless platitude with hidden power for Obama supporters. The reference to “purpose over conflict” is a coded denunciation of Bush, and a nostalgic reminder Obama’s campaign rhetoric.

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.

Here Obama, America’s “post-racial” President, announces the dawn of post-partisan politics in a tone that echoes Lincoln’s second inaugural address (“With malice toward none, with charity for all… let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”) This passage has broad appeal, but particularly for critics of the Bush administration, and even more for younger voters who reject their parents culture war politics as a distraction from more fundamental issues, such as climate change and the national debt.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.

As with any Bible reference in a political speech, this line is a tip of the hat to America’s large, active Christian population, including its legions of culture warriors. By referencing Scripture (Corinthians 13:11), Obama repeats a strategy established early in the address: embedding new proposals in ancient wisdom.

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.

“Our better history”: Obama returns to a concept he used in his campaign speech on race. By presenting the country as a work-in-progress and insisting that even American’s ugliest experiences have value when taken as part of a larger inter-generational effort to “perfect the Union,” Obama attempts to defuse lingering animosity and guilt and to focus attention on the country’s purest ideals. The phrase is also reminiscent of Lincoln’s appeal to “the better angels of our nature” in the closing of his first inaugural address.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

Having encouraged the audience to take in the rarified air of America’s founding ideals, Obama jump cuts to the man on the street, the unsung hero who is now asked to help rescue his country from the ravages of those who “seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.”

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

In this passage Obama for the first time calls on one of his favorite rhetorical techniques – anaphora, repeating a phrase at the opening of successive sentences. He does it twice more in the address, but this first usage is the most powerful in its “For us” emphasis on the debt owed by contemporary Americans to their predecessors. By depicting the immigrant as the quintessential American, Obama is refuting the populist caricature of the immigrant as a selfish, non-commited pseudo citizen.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

Obama invokes the three archetypal figures in American mythology, the immigrant, the pioneer, and the slave, giving each equal authorship in the country’s construction.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Then the soldier, a similarly mythical figure with greater contemporary relevance.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

Here Obama reveals his own national ideal: America as a place of fresh starts, where ancient divisions can be healed, castes shed, destiny’s re-written. By virtue of his words (as well as his election) Obama gives America’s “land of opportunity” ethos new plausibility at a time of widening divisions in wealth and opportunity.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. 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.

“Pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off”: This is a rare colloquial line in an otherwise formal address. It is an allusion to lines in the song, “Pick Yourself Up,” sung in the Depression-era movie “Swing Time” by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: “Nothing’s impossible, I have found./For when my chin is on the ground,/I pick myself up, dust myself off,/Start all over again.”

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act – not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Here Obama the campaigner re-emerges and the address loses momentum. For those who paid close attention to his campaign, particularly the three “Groundhog Day” debates that closed it, this passage feels pre-packaged. It lists ambitions that can be sliced and diced in hundreds of ways. Only the pledge to “return science to its rightful place,” a repudiation of the theocratic policies of the Bush administration, has flavor.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions – who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

In defending his non-specific plans, Obama addresses a non-specific opposition via the time-tested “there are some…” straw man argument. This technique is used by politicians the world over but it has special resonance for Obama supporters who remember the speech after his first victory in Iowa: “They said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high…”

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.

A second “The times they are a-changin” post-partisan appeal.

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. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Another repudiation of the Bush years delivered via a promise to govern with common sense.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control – and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

In advocating his administration’s new, activist role, Obama is breaking with 30 years of small government orthodoxy. But he is quick to reassure America’s free marketeers that questioning the system is out of the question. He ends this passage with one of the address’s few memorable lines. Perhaps due to the enormous historical significance of the inauguration itself, Obama didn’t feel the need to pepper his speech with one-liners for the history books and quotation compendiums. His “a nation cannot prosper…” is an exception, one that would fit nicely alongside Roosevelt (“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who already have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”) and Kennedy (“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”)

The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart – not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.

Perhaps the speech’s most blatant rejection of the Bush administration’s policies, greeted as such during the speech.

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. And so 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 that we are ready to lead once more.

Again Obama couches change in constancy. He uses a conservative trope (the infallibility of America’s founding documents) to justify a progressive policy. The passage then shifts awkwardly to address the outside world, and closes with an off-key sentence that attempts to reassure weary non-Americans by re-asserting American dominance. This line elicited a roar from the audience, which partially explains why it reads so badly: although apparently directed to the outside world, its primary purpose was to inject some narcissistic pep into an otherwise self-critical speech.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that 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.

Obama follows a declaration of supremacy with an expression of humility and willingness to cooperate. He is proclaiming an end to Bush’s unilateralism, but he announces this not as a change, but as the resumption of tried and true ways.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort – even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

Perhaps more than any president in recent times Barack Obama seems determined to seize the center and enlarge it to the very boundaries of the nation.This paragraph demonstrates the difficulties of that ambition. After providing a laundry list of left wing goals, Obama concludes with a right wing muscle flex that could have been written by Karl Rove himself.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

We are the world: Another glimpse at Obama’s ideal America as a place of reinvention and transcendence. This passage is charged not only by Obama’s personal story but by demographic trends that predict a “majority of minorities” in the next 30 years. In a shrinking world in which mono-racial behemoths are on the rise, America is establishing an area of expertise over which it can claim immediate authority.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.

Anaphora returns, this time as a 21st century update of Kennedy’s inaugural address “To those old allies… To those new States… To those people in huts and villages… To those nations who would make themselves our adversary…”

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

Obama announces another break with Bush policy, but rather than embedding it in the wisdom of the Founding Fathers (or the Heavenly Father) he attempts to write his own scripture, announcing his willingness to negotiate with enemies via a phrase so fresh yet familiar that it nullifies dissent.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment – a moment that will define a generation – it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

By honoring the soldier as a model citizen, Obama enlists a figure who is closely associated with the right in defense of an agenda associated with the left. In separating the soldier’s spirit of service from his/her military actions, Obama sets up the possibility of a dignified withdrawal.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

This tribute to everyday valour is a Bush critique in drag. Obama announces a new direction by assembling human interest stories from the depths of Bush’s failures – Hurricane Katrina, recession, 9-11…

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true.

Back to the future: Here the connection between change and continuity is made explicit – old values around which we construct a New Society. Suddenly, the speech takes on qualities of a manifesto, as Obama envelopes the listener in a cloud of virtues, an expanded “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” delivered in a bunch of “Ordem e Progresso”-style pairings.

They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence – the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

Obama returns to religion, but with greater ambiguity, invoking divine will to justify earthly pursuits. Our journey is overseen by God but its destination is of our own choosing, an awkward balance of Divine Providence and laissez-faire that has been used to justify some of America’s most ambitious programs, such as space exploration and “Manifest Destiny,” the belief that the US is divinely ordained to stretch “from sea to shining sea.”

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 sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

At last, Obama administers a dose of the self-congratulatory vibes that dominated inauguration weekend. This passage offers a rare feel good moment and the speech’s only acknowledgement of the speaker’s cultural significance, but rather fanning the flames Obama promptly dunks his audience in “an icy river.”

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

“Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

America. 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. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Obama ends as he began with anxiety-inducing weather metaphors. There is no crescendo, and not much thematic closure. The ambition with which he closes – “delivering freedom to future generations” – sounds strangely modest for, in the words of Bill Clinton’s second inaugural address, “the world’s indispensable nation.” Obama has lowered expectations by emphasizing the hardships of the past and resiliency of old principles. In a festival atmosphere he celebrated sobriety and pragmatism, and meted out fear and hope in equal portions.

Originally published in Volume 19 (April 2009)