Obama’s Inaugural Address: A Bad-Weather Speech for Bad-Weather Times

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With over a million exhilarated Americans filling the space between the civic shrines of the Capitol and the Washington Monument on the National Mall, President Barack Obama, in the first American inaugural address delivered by a black man, acknowledged the enthusiasm and hope he and his victory have inspired, but his speech was not overly celebratory. Instead, he attempted to guide the nation into what promises, due to circumstances heretofore beyond his control, to be a somber time and a trying presidency.

Underneath clear skies on a crisp, slightly-colder-than-usual day, the 44th president began, “I stand here today humbled by the task before us.” He noted that he had just become one of the few presidents who takes office “amidst gathering clouds and raging storms.” He outlined the obvious problems his administration faces: war, a weak economy (partly due to the “greed and irresponsibility” of “some”), job losses, businesses closed, homes lost, a broken health care system, and failing schools.

Vowing to meet these daunting challenges, the new president offered not policy details but, yes, hope. He praised the unsung workers (including slaves) of America’s past, “obscure in their labor,” who built this country. But, he added, the current challenges “will not be met easily or in a short span of time.” He maintained that Americans “must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” And that renewal, he said, would demand “bold and swift” action, including the building of roads and bridges, electric grids and digital lines. It also would entail reforming health care, developing alternative energy, and revitalizing schools. He acknowledged this is a big job.

Obama portrayed his response to the moment at hand as ideology-free: “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them–that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works–whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.” Obama can try to depict his agenda as post-ideological, but these words do convey the opposite sentiment of Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” And Obama did challenge another fundamental precept of conservatism when he noted that the free market cannot always be trusted: “without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control.” This was a speech of progressive notions–without explicitly championing them.

Obama was obligatorily gracious toward his predecessor, thanking George W. Bush for his “service to our nation.” (When Bush first appeared for the ceremony, parts of the audience sang, “Sha-na-na-nah, hey, hey, good-bye.”) But Obama’s speech contained significant jabs at the Bush-Cheney status quo he aims to undo. He pledged to “restore science to its rightful place.” The audience applauded. Referring to “our common defense,” Obama declared, “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals”–a direct reference to Gitmo, torture, and the like. He added that the United States will not give up its ideals “for expediency’s sake” and that everyone around the world should know that “we are ready to lead once more.” The crowd cheered. Obama vowed to “responsibly leave Iraq to its people” and “forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan.” (When Bush spoke at his second inauguration, he did not utter the words “Iraq” and “Afghanistan.”) Obama said he would “work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat and roll back the specter of a warming planet.” (Bush spoke of neither threat in either of his two inaugural speeches.) And Obama was not shy in criticizing American self-absorption and over-consumption: “We can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our border, nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect.” In other words, it is time to end the complacency of the Bush-Cheney years.

As Obama did throughout the campaign, he found a way to hail the glories of America’s past while poignantly addressing its sins and flaws. It is precisely because the country has “tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger,” he maintained, that it can handle its present troubles. That may or may not be so, but coming from Obama–who had drawn hundreds of thousands of black Americans to Washington to share this historic experience–the sentiment has deep and rich resonance. As he pointed out, “a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

Obama now has the unenviable double duty of telling the public the disheartening truths about current crises he inherits and inspiring it to overcome these difficulties. The inauguration ceremony at the Capitol reflected the sensibilities of the Obama culture. Aretha Franklin sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” (Franklin’s performance wowed the crowd, which barely reacted to the invocation of fundamentalist super-pastor Rick Warren, who noted that Martin Luther King Jr. is “shouting in heaven.”) Itzhak Perlmen, Yo-Yo Ma, Anthony McGill, and Garbiela Montero played a version of the Shaker song “Simple Gifts.” Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé, and Sean Combs sat in the first rows. But at the end of the speech, Obama turned to the original commander-in-chief, George Washington, for inspiration.

During a dark moment of the American battle for independence, when “the enemy was advancing” and “the snow was stained with blood,” Obama recounted, Washington ordered a message be read to the people: “Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger came forth to meet it.”

Obama had begun by speaking of ominous storms; he ended referring to a dark winter. It was a speech of bad weather. The rhetoric soared at moments but it never shined. The take-home message was no shocker: we have lots to do below cloudy skies. This was not a speech of surprises, and it remains to be seen if any portion will become a only-thing-to-fear-is-fear-itself catchphrase.

But it was a speech in sync with the moment. During the campaign, Obama issued an invitation to voters: join me in a crusade to change Washington and, then, the nation. That is how to obtain health care reform and how to end the Iraq war, he insisted. It’s not about me, it’s about you, he said. But now that dark clouds have gathered, he’s no longer leading a movement of political change, he’s fighting for the survival of the US economy. And he insisted in this speech that he cannot do it without other Americans pitching in. What they are to do was unclear–other than to stay true to the America values of “hard work, and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.” Yet what he was signaling was that in the days, weeks, and months ahead–as Obama endeavors to move his far-reaching agenda through Congress–he will need as many Americans as he can rally to push, and perhaps push hard.

Once Obama concluded his address, his fellow citizens began leaving the mall, and dust rose from the cold ground of the capital. As Obama sat and listened to the benediction delivered by the Reverend Joseph Lowery, a veteran of the civil rights struggle (who noted that Obama “has come to this high office at a low moment”), the new president could look out at the Washington Monument and see a haze engulf its base. Thousands were leaving to return to their daily lives. When the dust settles, Obama will begin the most difficult of tasks. Hope and virtue may not be enough.

Front page photo by Ed Homich.


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