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Obama’s big speech was half-baked, but that’s nothing new

That Obama’s big inauguration speech was a forgettable shopping list should surprise no one. But there may have been a hint of a new, bullish spirit for a second term.

America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together.”

Well, no one is going to cite Barack Obama’s second inaugural address as one of the triumphs of oratory in our time. But no one ever much thought it would be. For a few months in 2008, as he sought the Democratic primary, Obama channelled the full might of the civil rights tradition, taken in turn from the black church tradition, as a way of summoning up the half-resigned hopes of the Democratic rank-and-file, in order to leave the cautious professionalism of Hillary Clinton standing in the dust.

Once Clinton was thus despatched, Obama’s prose became almost defiantly, well, prosaic — a plain language, stripped of much of what passes for style in American political prose, what Evelyn Waugh, speaking of Churchill, once called sham-Augustan. Obama’s chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau, was barely 26 when he began working for The One, having been a John Kerry staffer in 2004. Speechwriters in the past had often as not been bookwormish types, hauled out of the academy, bow tie intact, men stitched out of quotes. Favreau comes from the activist side of the movement, a whizz at writing a clear sentence, seemingly incapable of making a memorable one.

Today’s effort — which would have been written with the active involvement of Obama himself — showed every sign that its drafting had been cut short by the pressures of time, i.e. they had to deliver the damn thing half-baked. Here’s an excerpt from the first part:

We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’

Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.”

That last sentence is unquestionably designed to communicate a vision to people who may not be very well-read, or educated, but as prose style it’s kak. The bulk of the speech is like that too — clear, direct, ungainly and unpleasing. But then, most inaugural address have been kak. Reading back through them, you wonder at the number of missed opportunities. Roosevelt’s 1933 and 1937 addresses have their well-known moments — the “nothing to fear but fear itself” riff — but it is buried in passages that manage to be rambling and laboured, and in the first part of the 1933 speech, if I’m not mistaken, more or less anti-Semitic.

Reagan’s first address is sprightly, but is the first to be largely made up of a sledge of its predecessor, for being a big-spending liberal. What about Lincoln, surely? No, Abe’s first address is a legalistic journey through the north-south slave compromise. His second address, a month before his assassination, was barely eight minutes in length, a hope that the war would be over, but ending with this flight:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

It was the prose style of this passage and the Gettysburg Address that JFK’s speechwriter Ted Sorenson drew on to create his relatively short 1961 address, a piece of adamantine prose poetry, if ever there was one. It was Kennedy’s oratory that has set forever the entirely false notion that an inaugural address is a barely human feat of inspiration, rather than a muddle through:

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”

Well, yeah, one does not attest to the veracity of it. But that, together with the ancient Robert Frost reading his poem “The Gift Outright” (“The land was our before we were the land’s/She was our land more than a hundred years/Before we were her people”), man, that would have been an afternoon.

So compared to that, Obama’s latest effort was bound to sound like a shopping list. Accusations — coming from the Right, before Beyonce had even got to verse two — that Obama had politicised an apolitical event (huh?) do not bear scrutiny. But it was certainly more specific than many other addresses. He began with an assertion of the essence of American liberalism — that fidelity to the constitution is expressed by changing institutions and policies, not fixed ones — attacked widening inequality as corrosive. Then, the address neatly tied notions of American community to the American state:

The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and social security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

That of course, is European social liberalism, as lies at the root of social democracy — the idea that the state expresses community, rather than being a necessary evil to be restrained by it. No wonder the Right is going spack. He then hit various policy points; climate change, getting out of wars, equal pay, equal rights for gay men and women, and a veiled reference to gun control. Then a link to the counter-tradition of American history, as represented by civil rights:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”

Ugh, sibilance and alliteration, and weird punning, to good writing what TGI Friday’s is to restaurants, just wrong. But, as I say, no worse than most of the 50-odd previous examples.

The important question for most is whether this amounts to an announcement of a new spirit for the second term, one in which Obama has decidedly put away all forlorn hopes of consensus and unity. Had there been any doubt about that, there was Mitt Romney’s failure to make an appearance, the first losing candidate to not attend (without good reason) since 1980. More importantly, it is the hell that the Republican leadership has put him though with the fiscal cliff malarkey that appears to have convinced Obama that they would not stand up to their own nutty base.Obama (to judge from Bob Woodward’s book on the negotiations, bilious anti-Obama tract though it be) appears to have found John Boehner’s failure decisive — the other “man of colour” (so called because of his sun-lamp orange colour, actually due to excess iron) has become the personification of the Right’s retreat into fantasy. Perhaps the Newtown massacre, and the bizarre NRA response to it, has sharpened Obama’s sense of that division, reminded him that there are times when reasonableness is just cowardice with a good excuse; and that he must strike out more decisively to forge a liberal agenda in his second term.

Should he do that, it will be less due to any energy coming from within his circle than from the movement that rose and crested in the 2012 election, with the success of anti-drug-war special measures, same-s-x marriage victories, and a raft of liberal reforms in California — from citizen-voted tax rises to a striking down of the iniquitous three-strikes law.

There is of course, no explicit agenda, no manifesto on public view; and if there’s a secret one, it has been kept very secret indeed. The fact that Obama has made gun control a central measure in the wake of the Newtown massacre suggests that such changes as come will be reactive in nature. But that does not mean they will not be potentially transformative, or that, at the end of it, there will not be something immediately identifiable as “the Obama era”. There almost certainly will be, but its form is unknowable.

Who, after November 2008, predicted the Tea Party, the Arab Spring, Obama’s Libyan initiative? With the House still in enemy hands, Obama’s field of action will be executive regulation and foreign policy, where a reckoning of sorts with his drone wars — and what, across North Africa, may be the first sign of blowback — may become a central political/ethical issue of his presidency. Above all, his greatest opportunity is in the hands of fate — the prospect that one, two or even three Supreme Court Justices may retire or, in among the five conservatives, go to that great robing room in the sky, allowing him to shape a liberal court that could dominate American politics for the next four decades.

It’s a chastening thought that the true pivot of American history may be Antonin Scalia’s cholesterol reading, rather than anything anyone does or says in the days and years to come. The world will not long remember the words said here — and this time round that observation is spot on.

But the act itself, a black man, not merely taking, but resuming the presidency, no longer an audacious moment in history, but the thing itself, its mainstream — the Lincoln and Martin Luther King bibles piled one atop the other under his hand, the tiered ranks of black and white behind him — that moment seizes the memory and will not soon go. So it was, so it will become.

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  • 1
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Tuesday, 22 January 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Obama came to the presidency with gret fanfare and high hopes, Everest high.

    He was never going to attain those heights, and in the end appeared somewhat ineffectual, however the anodyne opening to this presidency has perhaps set the expectations at a much more achievable level. In hindsight, he may appear to have achieved greatly, if only because the expectations are no so low.

    The question that really needs answering is whether the political system in USA is now so fractured that genuine reform may be beyond them. Perhaps it is that a genuinely transformational President may be a thing of the past.

    Who can say?

  • 2
    Salamander
    Posted Tuesday, 22 January 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to know from all the armchair experts how Obama could have done it better.

  • 3
    zut alors
    Posted Tuesday, 22 January 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Salamander, for starters keeping his promise re closing Guantanamo Bay. Gitmo represented the pro-war Bush era; not only did Obama inherit it but he now owns it outright.

    The escalated use of drones (and the consequent killing of civilians) also convinces me Obama could’ve ‘done it better’.

  • 4
    Dr Dagg
    Posted Tuesday, 22 January 2013 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    This piece misses the boat for mine. Who cares the prose is kak. The speech is designed to communicate to the uneducated and ill-informed … because that’s about 250 million Americans.

    Who cares if the agenda is not explicit. If Obama can get the American populace and/or Congress to agree to any change on any thing he’ll be a miracle worker.

  • 5
    Philip Darbyshire
    Posted Tuesday, 22 January 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Obama is “prosaic”? Good grief. I’m struggling to think think of a single Australian politician over the last 20 or 30 years who even comes close to Obama in being able to move or encapsulate with their speeches. And please don’t suggest ‘Paul Keating’ or I’ll die laughing.

  • 6
    Salamander
    Posted Tuesday, 22 January 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Given the intransigence of the opposition, it is not what Obama could have done - that’s easy - but how.

  • 7
    Keith Thomas
    Posted Tuesday, 22 January 2013 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Guy. You are one of the few who can put the speech in context, both politically and rhetorically. If it had not been for the Kennedy/Sorensen precedent, would we have such high expectations of inauguration speeches? I would have appreciated a little more colour on the ceremony itself: the template roles for the military, the metallic singer, the role of music and the impression this is meant to convey. This is a set-piece performance and the ingredients are meant to resonate powerfully with Americans. Do they? Is it fair for us to critique them on our terms, not theirs?

  • 8
    Salamander
    Posted Tuesday, 22 January 2013 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    They survived, against the odds in the face of the most disgraceful bunch of anti-rational populist corporatocrats - including most mainstream media ruthlessly arrayed against them. But now you want them to put on a pretty song and dance act for our delectation. Give me a break.

  • 9
    michael r james
    Posted Tuesday, 22 January 2013 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    I think you might like to reassess the speech at a later time. (And remember NUBO.) I suspect it will grow in stature with time. The whole thing about its “prosaic” tone was, I am quite sure, very deliberate. And I certainly prefer it to what everyone else declaims as Obama’s soaring rhetoric but which, with time, becomes like a Hollywood B-grade script, all jingoistic bombast and melodrama.

    Some are saying he didn’t set out an agenda but that seems totally weird since I believe he set it out as clear as day — in a way he hasn’t done before — and it was suffused through the speech from beginning to end. Essentially it was “equality”, as in the Declaration of Independence. More, it produced the best line of the entire speech (and which Guy seems to have missed):

    we take these truths as self-evident …. but they are not self-executed”.

    Thus, he has provided a political philosophy, tied directly to the beginnings of the republic, that will guide his second term. Education, health etc. Because, obviously, if they are not self-executed, it needs government to do the job intended by the founding fathers. It is exactly the anti-Reagan (even if, as designed, most fans of St Reagan will not realize).

    In this speech, unlike almost all other Obama orations, he did not try to appeal across the board (no more elections for him) — he explicitly rejected the TP and their “takers” rhetoric. As GR says, there is plenty for the Repugs to get upset about but the tone was not provocative, just letting everyone know that if they didn’t want to be part of the governing consensus then he wasn’t wasting his efforts on them. (Something many older Republicans would agree with.) Not bad at all.
    …………….
    Of course the news clips are all showing Beyonce (and Kelly Clarkson) singing the anthem but did you catch JT with just voice and guitar!

  • 10
    michael r james
    Posted Tuesday, 22 January 2013 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Guy, as a biochemist let me nitpick. Besides it’s kinda fun; “John Boehner becomes the first Orange-American speaker of the house” “Tangelo-American John Boehner” etc.

    John Boehner’s failure decisive — the other “man of colour” (so called because of his sun-lamp orange colour, actually due to excess iron)”

    Excess iron is most commonly associated with the genetic disorder of haemochromatosis (the most common genetic disease in humans, only affects men). But the visible result is dark blotching, most commonly seen as black feet though eventually dark blotches appear in various parts of the body (which are actual iron deposits) — not to mention causing liver necrosis and all kinds of organ damage in time. Treatment is simply and effective: regular bleeding! (I’m sure there would be plenty of offers to help Boehner.)

    If you reckon his colour is not due to sun-tanning, or even more likely spray-tan treatment, then an orange complexion is mostly due to carotenaemia which usually is from excess consumption of carrots. It is the β-carotene molecule that causes the orange colour in carrots and in fact most things orange in biology. (Oh, and unlike many highly-coloured bio-molecules no heavy metal is involved, like iron that causes haemoglobin to be red/brown.)

    Another (unlikely) explanation is that he suffers from Erythropoietic protoporphyria which actually produces painful sun-sensitivity and unbearable itchy skin. The treatment is lots of β-carotene such that patients turn orange and this both reduces sun-sensitivity and the other symptoms a bit. But this is a pretty serious disease and would be obvious in damaged facial skin.

    Another possibility is that there is an anti-ageing regime involving regular consumption of higher than normal carotene, as some studies show it can slow down cognitive decline. (I think it is on the basis of effectively its anti-oxidant properties.)

    Google or Wikipedia doesn’t solve this for me, except that Boehner has denied he uses tanning beds or any tanning products. Some people claim it is due to his love of golf.

  • 11
    John Bennetts
    Posted Tuesday, 22 January 2013 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    Time to nitpick a little more.

    mrj, whose contributions I usually respect, said:
    “Excess iron is most commonly associated with the genetic disorder of haemochromatosis (the most common genetic disease in humans, only affects men).”

    My daughter and, to a lesser extent, my son, are living with forms of this complaint. It is certainly not restricted only to males. It is also frequently misdiagnosed, often with severe consequences, because it is commonly asymptomatic till after major damage has been done.

    Considering that this daughter has already had to deal with major cancer and is nowhere close to 40, she has plenty on her plate.

    It’s essential that those such as mrj who profess to be qualified in matters such as this get their facts correct - people’s lives are, indeed, involved.

    This is not the time or place for details. More information is available via Google or Wikipedia.

  • 12
    michael r james
    Posted Tuesday, 22 January 2013 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    JB
    Sorry about your family medical misfortune.

    But I really don’t think what I wrote was misleading. OK, I suppose I should have been more specific but I did in fact specify the “genetic disorder”. The term haemochromatosis can be used to refer to any of a number of conditions that result in iron accumulation but by far the most common (0.5% live births, caucasians) is the one I was talking about, HFE. The others (types 2A, 2B, 3, 4 and other even rarer ones) are together called non-HFE haemochromatosis. HFE is due to autosomal (non-sex chromosome) recessive — which means you need to inherit two copies of the mutated gene; but this mutation is very common in Europeans hence the high rate.

    I can only assume from what your wrote that your children have one of these others, such as 2A or 2B which are juvenile forms. HFE itself does not manifest until mid-life or later depending on personal history; for example it is now pretty certain that Ernest Hemingway had undiagnosed HFE and it drove him loopy at the very end (typical if untreated) but he actually lived quite a long life and almost certainly he was partly “protected” because he was in so many accidents in his life (some severe car accidents, a plane accident) and also possibly gave blood in the various war zones he placed himself in. Bleeding is of course why women generally do not suffer from HFE even with the identical gene mutation as men — they are protected until menarche and then generally there is not enough time to accumulate enough for symptoms late in life (though with everyone living so long these days…).
    The symptoms in HFE males generally do not start manifesting until early 40s, but of course if you are a regular blood donor you may never know. It is true that even today HFE is not as reliably diagnosed as it should be, but most GPs are more aware of it and catch it. (In the first instance the feet are examined for the black deposits, then of course liver tests etc.) Also HFE doesn’t cause cancer, except perhaps in extremis indirectly via liver cirrhosis (but by then you’re in deep trouble anyway).

    In Brisbane we have one of the world’s experts (and my prof a zillion years ago), Prof Laurie Powell — though he is pretty ancient he still has a clinic at RBH (I think).

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