Obama’s Inaugural Speech: A Post-Mortem Puzzle

Michael Blim

As Washington picked itself up and dusted itself off after the country’s most expensive inaugural ever, I searched myself to understand why my enthusiasm for Obama and his mission had slipped a notch or two. The event had been flawlessly executed, save for the faux pas of Chief Justice Roberts. The media had followed the Obama-administration inspired script that a new American electoral majority for good, many-faced and many-raced, had finally emerged to put several generations of poisoned, partisan, and reactionary politics behind us.

There was also abundant external evidence of the Inauguration’s success. Almost two thirds of those who watched the inaugural ceremonies told pollsters that they felt better, more optimistic, about America afterwards. USA Today and the Gallup Poll found that 46% of those who heard the inaugural address thought it excellent, and another 35% found it good. That’s about an A- as a grade average. Thus far, three million have watched Tuesday’s inaugural address on You Tube.

It didn’t work for me.


First, I do not think, in contrast to the view of many, that President Obama is a great orator. His voice works no siren sound on me. I don’t find myself getting stirred, or for that matter, find myself comfortably awash in vocal sonorities, the way I do, say, when I listen to recordings of speeches by Franklin Roosevelt or Winston Churchill. Think of the great voices of the Anglo-American theatre like James Earle Jones, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, and then think of Obama’s. The comparison is not felicitous. He sings no melody as might Gielgud, opens no pauses in the thought as does Jones, nor does he press himself upon you through simple elocution as did the great Olivier.

Second, Obama’s manner of speaking relies on cadence, rather than melody. In fact, his voice is rather monotonic, and he resorts to flatten phrase sentence endings tonically as if he enjoys taking the air out of the sentence he is airing. Occasionally he will rely on cadence, using its repetition to build an idea. He may add as he did on Tuesday a breathy, aspirated quality as if forcing his air through a slightly gauzy filter while letting his pitch rise with each new phrase. Though the repetition is a preacher’s tactic, the breathiness, unfortunately for me, is pure Garrison Keeler.

Perhaps more use of the technique would have produced more reaction in his listeners, but real success would have rested on the combination of a vocal manipulation and the idea for instance of inspiration. Obama was giving lessons: “we are this,” “we are that,” and so on. He was not painting word-pictures. His notable reference to slavery was reduced to twelve words: “they … endured the last of the whip and plowed the hard earth.” Perhaps, “they” also endured rape and concubinage, slave auctions, secret schooling, runaways, little revolts, and finally liberation, however blighted. Instead of attaching America’s redemption to the complex of human actions, slave labor is compared schematically in the same sentence with settling the West (where were the Indians?), crossing the oceans and fighting wars. Instead of invoking history, Obama find the very thin common ground that figures effort, whether compelled or offered freely, comparable because it all contributed to the birth of the nation.

Thus, Obama puts these instances together to underscore America’s simple (not to say simple-minded) belief in itself as engaged in a journey of national greatness.

The speech, then, was something of a listing in relaxed order of America’s strengths, all of which led in recursive fashion to a conclusion not unlike the old World War II diddy that “we did it before and we can do it again.” This rather banal sort of reassurance is elevated some, however, by Obama’s resort to claiming that our habits are indeed virtues. Our “hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism” are the truth of us. If we can recover these essential American virtues and apply them to ourselves and to our relations with others, then freedoms with both its ethical and material gifts shall be delivered safely again to a new generation.

It is a speech, I feel compelled to say, of shallow convictions. It demands nothing more of us than re-dedication to the task at hand, our values if honored sufficient for our labors.

Why are we here? Why before this abyss? Why in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the Second World War, now sixty and some years ago? What must we do?

Paul Krugman (New York Times, 1/23/09) had it right when he noticed that President Obama had spread the blame around: suddenly we were all to blame in part for the mess we now are in, and as Krugman notes, Obama resorted to the “we’re–all-at-fault, let’s-get-tough-on-ourselves boilerplate.” There were the greedy, but all we like sheep…

Neither Lincoln nor Roosevelt would have started there or left us there. For both, there were “whats” and “whys,” that were important to establish as fact to both indicate direction and justify future action. What has happened, must we do, and why?

Lincoln in his second inaugural address is unsparing in his insistence that “slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest,” and “all knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” He fears that that “this terrible war” may, if God wills, “continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” Yet he asks the nation to act ”with malice toward none,” and “with charity for all,” in creating a just and lasting peace.

Here we have an argument complete that drives emotion deep into the heart of reason. A motive for change, or more accurately perhaps, for national transformation has been given.

President Obama, Krugman believes, follows Keynes in noting how our capacities to sustain our lives remain even if the economic system that facilitates exchange has broken down. I rather think, however, that Obama looks back to Roosevelt’s first inaugural speech where the first rhetorical gambit is to separate our productive capacities and will from the economic system that then strangled it:

“Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils, which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bound and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rules of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. … They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers.”

Moreover, Roosevelt believes that the people shall be as a “great army … dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.”

And here, perhaps, lies another of the problems revealed in the Obama inaugural speech, and one of the conundrums he must solve to secure some success.

Both Roosevelt and Lincoln, I suggest, not only tell Americans what is wrong, and why it is wrong, but also what must be done. They also suggest what we must do. We must form an army of peacemakers, says Lincoln in 1865; an army to support Roosevelt’s programs, Roosevelt says in 1933.

What must we do, one would like to ask President Obama, to transform America, as Lincoln asks, or to support even emergency action to save the nation, as Roosevelt speculates may at the end be necessary?

Obama implies that America must change dramatically, but that those changes will be consonant with our tried and true values (those noted above). And this is where Obama being Obama in our time may blind him and obscure for others the deeper dimensions of our current dilemma.

Obama is a charismatic figure, non pareil. It derives not from his rhetoric, which I argue above is not as extraordinary as advertised, but from his presence. He fulfills our wish that our values be true, and that we are who we want to believe we are – those virtues he praises throughout the inaugural address. Following charisma’s original exponent, Max Weber, charisma is a virtue not the possession of the charismatic, but an attribute in fact that is a gift to the figure in whom we confer it. And so with Obama: he is the receptacle, (or vessel as he put it himself in an early New Yorker profile) of Americans’ desire to be both righteous and true.

On inaugural day, Obama offered himself as living proof. Obama’s father might have been denied service at a lunch counter 60 years ago, but his son is now president. Via his person, Obama finds the nation’s emotional bedrock, but at the expense of not realizing that his charisma is one thus far of redemption or national affirmation, rather than of change or transformation. In fact, I am arguing above that he has not yet shown an awareness that his charisma, though honestly acquired through the lottery of national self-affirmation, must be gambled on changes equivalent to those that both Lincoln and Roosevelt saw as the imperatives of their times.

I hope that he be able to say as Roosevelt at his second inaugural did that:

“we have made the exercise of all power more democratic; for we have begun to bring private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public’s government. The legend that they were invincible – above and beyond the processes of a democracy – has been shattered. They have been challenged and beaten.” (January 20, 1937)