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.