The throaty roar from the largest crowd ever assembled in Washington had barely faded when the first of television’s legion of talking heads opined that President Obama had delivered a good, not a great, speech. “I didn’t hear any lines like ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ or ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself,’ ” the judgment went. As the speech and the events of the day sank in over the next 36 hours, the inaugural address of our 44th president has taken on more luster. But those initial comments demonstrate that many political pundits still don’t get Obama the messenger.
As he has said from the early days of his campaign, “This is not about me. It is about you.” The campaign was always inclusive, always about “us.” Jan. 20 was no different. We, as a people, were lightly chided for making short-term choices that contributed to what is now a long-term crisis in our economy. Rather than take the easy route of putting all the blame on Wall Street and policymakers, Obama cited the “greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.” Sounding a vague echo of Jimmy Carter’s ill-conceived “malaise” speech, Obama decried “a crisis of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.”
And then he lifted us up. He acknowledged that our challenges will not be easily or quickly met, then pledged, “But know this, America — they will be met.” He reminded us of our historical ability to rise above hardship and challenges, reminding us we were all there because “we had chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” And he recalled our heritage, what generations had done for “us” — crossing oceans, opening frontiers, fighting to defend and preserve our union — all for “us.”
And spread before him were as many as 2 million peoples crowded on an open, frozen expanse of earth to be one of “us.” In cities across the nation and around the world, millions more watched on JumboTrons, flat-screens and tiny old black-and-white TVs to be one of “us.” A world once again inspired by what can happen in America. Inspired by a people who have moved from slavery to segregation to Jim Crow prejudice to electing an African-American out of hope. It was a global gathering wanting nothing more than to join Barack ObamaBarack ObamaOvernight Energy: Trump's climate order coming Tuesday Feehery: Freedom Caucus follies Perry visits proposed Yucca nuclear waste site MORE as one of “us” in a pageant of confirmation that the dream of America still lives.
Barack Obama seems never to worry about speaking lines that will be engraved in stone or memorized in history classes, though I heard some that will be with me forever in that speech. His talent and his power as an orator is his ability to match his words to the time. As a lifelong Republican said to me, he seems “modulated” to his subject and perfectly “calibrated” to his audience. His speech delivered just the right messages for the first hours of his presidency. He did not back away from critiques of our history — “We have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation.” He did not shy from putting distance between his policies and those of the president he replaced. He rejected the false choice between our safety and our ideals and raised a cry for us to recapture our basic values. Not stinging, personal rebukes of President Bush, but words that drew a sharp line between the past eight years and the next.
Obama launched his presidency much as he ended his campaign: with a call for cooperation, for personal commitment, for a vision that was at once high-minded and executed with a pragmatic, centrist reality. The speech was rather short on rhetorical flourishes. In fact, it was quite plainspoken. Here is where we are today. Here is where we want to go. Here is what we have to do to get there. There was precious little man-on-a-horse posturing or threats. Rather, it was a message honed for its time and tuned for an audience that is both impassioned by what the new president represents and hungry for the hardworking, pragmatic leadership that will get our nation back on track. It was a message for “us.”
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.