Wednesday, January 21, 2009Reading Obama's (first?) Inaugural Address leaves me with a different perspective than hearing it did. Perhaps this points to a flaw in the writing - speeches are, after all, meant to be spoken rather than read. It's structure wasn't as tight as the dictates of classical rhetoric might suggest, but the form of the address was fairly simple, and its theme even more so: that Americans can surmount today's challenges, as they have surmounted past challenges, by hewing to their shared ideals and working together to make those ideals a reality. The critique of Reaganism and Bushism was not central to the speech, but simply part of a larger argument. Obama's main point was that the anti-government ideologies of the past were inappropriate to the present crisis, and had in fact enabled them. He didn't get too explicit because he was striving for a unifying theme, but the thesis was there. I also loved his communalist rhetoric and use of "we're all in this together" language, features which liberal oratory badly needs to be persuasive.
Obama's speech has taken some criticism, some of it warranted. It wasn't his best, for sure. I might quibble with his placement of the Washington quote from Valley Forge, which was an excellent one. I would have begun the speech with that reference, and referred to it again at the peroration. The format is a difficult one, but only a few inaugural addresses have been truly outstanding. Obama also suffered from expectations. JFK, FDR, and Lincoln won their reputation as orators during their presidency, whereas Obama was known as one before. Obama was also limited by the fact that he was unwilling to use the stark us/them rhetoric that makes high oratory so much easier.
But in the main it was a very strong speech, and lays the foundation for much of what he intends to accomplish. I expect that in the future, Republicans will have to choose between cooperating with Obama in an effort to act as a break, in which case Obama's post-partisan rhetoric will reach fruition, or they can oppose him, in which case Obama will have the opportunity to marginalize them as petty politicians who are unwilling to honestly face the country's problems. I for one am hoping for the former, although I remain doubtful.