Obama's inauguration speech – what did you think?

by Stephen Tall on January 20, 2009

For those of you who missed seeing a slice of history served up live, President Obama’s inauguration speech is now available to read here.

For me, Obama’s very best speeches – to the 2004 Democratic convention, his Jeremiah Wright ‘race speech’, and his election victory acceptance – are intensely personal; with a life story as extraordinary as Obama’s, as emblematic of the idealised American dream, it would be surprising if it were otherwise.

The inauguration speech is a rather different matter: it’s not about the person, it’s about the Office of the President, and how he will use it. Was this speech a mesmerising tour de force which will rank among his best? Not for me. But that’s not a bad thing at all, because what the speech did demonstrate was a sense of uncompromising purpose – and I’ll take that over highfalutin oratory from the most powerful leader in the world. For sure, there was the soaring promise:

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.

But what struck me more was the sense of the ultimate pragmatist CEO, impatient to fix what he sees as broken:

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.

And for those of us listening beyond the USA, there were many encouraging signs that, after eight long, dismal years, America now has a President who understands what it means to be a progressive, liberal internationalist:

As for our common defence, 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. 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 we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the 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. …

… 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.

Of course, saying it (however elegantly) doesn’t make it so. President Obama, along with his fans and his critics, have become accustomed to judging him by his words; they’re all a candidate has. Now’s the time to measure him by his actions. And, on the basis of today, let’s grant the new President and ourselves a brief period of optimistic hope that this time it really will be different.

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Didn’t watch it. I feel more relief than enthusiasm, though I suspect Obama will be at least a moderate success. You can see enough evidence from the last 16 years that Democratic governments are better then Republican governments, & Obama is not only a remarkable man but willing to listen to the relevant experts rather than censoring them for political reasons (as Bush did over the environment & other matters).

I do worry about him being slightly too technocratic & losing sight of principle, but I find this unlikely. I am also unpeturbed by his reaching out to those of a different view to his own, since they’re all willing to give him a chance & will indeed pull together.

I’m amused by the right-wing hysterics trying to call Obama a socialist when he’s plainly nothing of the sort, & going on & on about how he’ll ruin the country when in fact their own side have made a pretty good job of doing that. The outrage on wingnut blogs & from the likes of Mad Mel Phillips is a right laugh 🙂

by asquith on January 20, 2009 at 6:56 pm. Reply #

Also that utter knobhead James Delingpole has been spewing forth again. Truly pathetic, but also hilarious.

by asquith on January 20, 2009 at 6:56 pm. Reply #

Fine words I thought, and a realistic appraisal of the bankrupt state we’re all in now. Let’s trust he offers some revolutionary policies to deal with the mess.

Beyond steering us through the Second Great Depression, I can’t wait for him to articulate how much he looks forward to the election of the first Muslim Prime Minister of Israel, the first Jewish leader of Palestine – and the first (modern) openly atheist President of the US of A!

Go Barack – Go!

by Andrew Duffield on January 20, 2009 at 7:47 pm. Reply #

“first (modern) openly atheist President of the US of A”

I’d love to see that. Atheists will have to be open, & assertive (which most are not) before it happens though.

I’ll be happier when Obama gets over his coronation & starts gritting it, changing America for the better in so many almost imperceptible ways, but conclusively nonetheless.

by asquith on January 20, 2009 at 7:54 pm. Reply #

I thought it was an excellent speech and a very moving occasion.

It was particularly good to see that the speech was clearly designed to start to repair the US’ reputation round the world.

I have been watching it all on CNN and the comments from some of the older black people who fought in the civil rights movement have also been very moving.

by Liberal Neil on January 20, 2009 at 10:29 pm. Reply #

I’ve been an Obama-sceptic, fearing that behind his fancy rhetoric – which undoubtedly sounds good – he was a bit empty. I’d probably have voted Clinton in the primaries (or Edwards in the early ones).

However, he’s been saying the right things since his nomination. I’ve looked in detail at the words in this speech, and they look good. All the right things that you would want to be there from someone who is going to lead the nation from the centre left through its current crises are there.

The style and content of this speech reminds me of why I despair of our own leaders. If one looks at the politician’s clichĂ©s and failure to hit the right notes in speeches from just about anyone currently leading in British politics, they just don’t match up at all. And, yes, I do mean Nick Clegg – if he really aspires to be Prime Minister he has to be able to match up to this level.

I like the historical allusions, appeals to national pride, and very slightly archaic language style in this speech. These things can be badly done, they are over-prominent in much American political speech, and they are one of the things that makes the American right scary, because it often uses them effectively to push very nasty politics. But here Obama is showing how they can be used from the left – our own leaders, please note.

Each to his or her own style. I actually think George Bush was a cleverer man than many suppose (doesn’t mean I like his politics) and those aspects of his speech style which to us made him look stupid were often, I think, a planned part of his image, designed to make him look “one of us” to ordinary Americans instead of the high US aristocrat he was. Returning to Nick Clegg, what does his speech style make us think of him? (I’ve cut out my answer to this question, because it was cruel and uncalled for in this thread).

A thought has been occurring to me for some time, which is that British political speeches are so bad because very few of us now are regularly exposed to formal uninterrupted spoken language. In the past, most people would have been exposed weekly to readings from the Bible and to sermons. I suspect this has contributed to Obama’s style. The cadences are there in this speech, but, correctly, not enough to be over-obvious or hammy. One direct scripture quote is right for an American audience, two or none would have been wrong (for a British audience, none is safest).

Now, here’s a minor point. One thing stood out and jarred in the speech when I read it (I’m assuming what’s in the Guardian today is an accurate transcript). “We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people”. When doing the high slightly archaic style, you should avoid split infinitives, the starchiness of avoiding them adds to the style. But then I thought of that most famous American split infinitive, and I thought “yes – very clever”. Since I am sure a decent speechwriter would be aware of this issue, I don’t think it was just accidental.

by Matthew Huntbach on January 21, 2009 at 9:22 am. Reply #

I did not watch any of the Inauguration 2009. I was not interested in seeing the Media or Hollowood crown their King.

by Marla on January 21, 2009 at 2:03 pm. Reply #

Marla – that was a mean-spirited comment and unworthy of the occasion.
Matthew HUntbach – agree with much of what you said. British politics looks stuffy,dull and tradition-bound (as well as increasingly linguistically impoverished) by comparison, especially the absurd traditions surrounding the state opening of parliament. A fresh British constitutional settlement should include a totally different approach to the so-called “Queen’s Speech” (and it isn’t “her” government – it’s ours,even if we didn’t vote for it) and all the rest of the silly rigmarole. It was truly heartening to see the reactions of ordinary Americans to this event – the only time I’ve felt anything close to that in Britain was the 1999 opening of the new Scottish parliament when our MSP’s paraded down Edinburgh’s Royal MIle in front of a massive crowd (and very little security!)

by Mike Falchikov on January 21, 2009 at 2:31 pm. Reply #

I thought it was a remarkable inauguration speech. It was extremely sure-footed and had several very soaring passages. Above all, it was impeccably delivered. One aspect which struck me was that he really laid into Bush and thereby marked a very clear break indeed with the last administration. To a large extent, the speech restored some of the world’s faith in the fairness and justice of the USA.

by Paul Walter on January 21, 2009 at 3:27 pm. Reply #

Splitting hairs I know, but I spotted a mistake in the first couple of paras. Don’t the speechwriters know he is only the 43rd person to take the oath? Grover Cleveland was the 22nd AND the 24th President. Hence Barack is the so-called ’44th President’, but only the 43rd person to hold the office.

Speech had a tad too much religion for my liking, but otherwise good. I laughed at the thanks to Bush for his service, probably the faintest praise possible without spoiling the occasion!

Lets hope Obama’s actions live up to the soaring rhetoric. Last time, the Bay of Pigs disaster came not long afterwards. But it does seem as if he means business, and a more even handed approach to Palestine would be welcome.

by Terry Gilbert on January 21, 2009 at 5:39 pm. Reply #

A lot to like. But there is one problem that can occur with the guy who prides himself in seeing all the angles, balancing all the competing claims, and finding a practical solution without sacrifice of too many principles. That is, it can make you bossy. In this case, given all the adulation, alongside a somewhat high-ranking position in global politics, I suspect it will.

Move over Gordon, there’s only one guy allowed to save the world from now on!

by David Allen on January 21, 2009 at 6:05 pm. Reply #

Mike,

Actually I quite like absurd traditions, and I do worry that there seem to be too many amongst the Liberal Democrats who want to stamp out anything colourful on the grounds that it offends their sense of rationalism. I quite like the idea that our Prime Minister is officially subservient to a symbolic leader who represents the continuity of our nation. Forcing politicians to dress up and take part in rigmarole is a way of reminding them that they are performing roles into which they have been placed, and that there is something greater than their own personalities in the system.

by Matthew Huntbach on January 22, 2009 at 10:33 am. Reply #

I hope Obama will keep his promises.

Best wishes.

by someone on January 25, 2009 at 9:39 am. Reply #

i loved his speech i hope he mmakes a change

by kelsey on February 20, 2009 at 12:29 am. Reply #

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