“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.

Peter Fray

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