United States

Jan 22, 2013

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.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


“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.

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12 thoughts on “Obama’s big speech was half-baked, but that’s nothing new

  1. Dogs breakfast

    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

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

  3. zut alors

    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

    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

    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

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

  7. Keith Thomas

    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

    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

    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

    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.

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