A fine speech. Though the President did many things well in the inaugural address it was not a speech free from error. If this were a full and fair appraisal there would be comments of both kinds. But adulation is cheap, and there is no shortage of Obama-philes willing to sing his praises. This entry therefore will restrict itself mostly to observations of a critical nature.
First for comment is the President’s ability to project rhetorical force. Though the speech exhibits high moments, especially at the end with his recital of General George Washington’s orders, much of the preceding in the speech feels aimless and wandering.
Take the example Obama’s introduction. After the usual ceremonies, the speech begins with the serious challenges facing the nation. “That we are in the midst of crisis is not well understood. Our nation is at war… Our economy is badly weakened…” The point is an important one for the President since it is both the first substantive comment and represents a major theme that appears in all the progressions that follow. It is understandable then that Obama deploys a wide array of rhetorical figures to evoke feelings in the audience of concern and foreboding.
But here he comes up short. A man noted for his facility for words, Obama never fully realizes the feelings he is set on creating. The first efforts appeal to imagery of “gathering clouds and raging storms”; later he designs his argument to intensify the effects “homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many…” But for all the effort, the emotive feelings Obama is trying to create are never fully accomplished. To be sure the prose is able and flows easily, but his attempts never collect the inertia needed to deliver points with real power.
It would go too far to say his arguments are without force, but they lack the energy to discriminate between the important and the truly important. The speech then never achieves great moments, only several good ones. For the listener the effect is a purposeless procession of one point after another. But to what? Was the speech about service to country? Retiring old dogma’s? Remaking America? Restoring trust? Obama can certainly be faulted for not making clear a singular theme in his address.
The moments unmake themselves in countless different ways. In some instances the President adds needless, litigious amounts of qualifications “and all deserve a chance to pursue…” In other instances he loses the symmetry of the sentence as, for example, with the unbalanced, mis-ordered clauses in this antithesis “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 the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart-not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.” (And it is particularly ironic that the next sentence begins by rejecting false dichotomies.) Sometimes his descriptions are beautiful “the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages”; but other times the effect is awkward like when he says “some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor”. There are transitions between subjects that are abrupt and others that just feel trite “So it has been. So it must be…”
It is notable that the speech had no great, eminently memorable lines. And for those that were intended to be, such as “era of responsibility”, so far they have been championed by nobody.
It was a speech then that did not reset the high mark for what could be done in an inaugural address. But it was not a speech without distinction. And if this production does not find a high place in the pantheon of great American speeches, no one doubts that this President will rival his predecessors for one of the great orators in American history.
By Diplomatic Courier Staff