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One man's reaction to President Obama's speech

REUTERS/Jim Young

One man's instant reaction to the The Speech (and please feel welcome to add your own reactions below).

I liked it very much, in part for some of the things it wasn't (a rousing, triumphant, self-conscious or self-aggrandizing tour de force) and was surprised by its quiet tone, though as the speech went on, the tone seemed appropriate. The brevity (about 18 minutes) was appreciated. The number of applause lines was low, and Obama didn't milk the applause at all by waiting for it. The tone was much more serious than celebratory.

The megathemes were a reflection of the campaign: change, hope, unity. But the idea of change was presented as a continuation of or reconnection with the best American traditions. One more megatheme emphasized a refrain Obama has emphasized during the transition: pragmatism — he will try to do what works.

A few specifics: By several small choices of word or phrase, Obama made big leaps of inclusivity.

"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers."

Mentioning Muslims and Hindus is a small act of courage. But what other recent president-elect or presidential candidate would have gone out of his way to acknowledge the agnostics and atheists?

"They fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn."

Adding Khe Sanh to the list of glorious places felt like a statement that the argument over Vietnam need divide us no longer, at least over the question of whether the troops who fought there deserve our gratitude.

"For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth."

The legacy of slavery and racism were embedded in the meaning of the day, for obvious reasons. But by this subtle mention, Obama added slaves to the list of glorious forbears who built America.

"We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do."

There wasn't a lot of trash talk about the mistakes of his predecessor. Obama thanks former President Bush for his service and his graciousness during the transition. But the digs were there, delivered with understatement. What else could it mean to restore science to its rightful place, or "that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous?" And what could it mean, other than a reference to torture of detainees or warrantless wiretapping when Obama said, "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."

Although former President Bush has been consistently gracious in statements about Obama, he looked sour on the stand behind his successor. What must he be thinking?

But Obama certainly didn't engage in a Bush blamefest (tempting as that is for many). He stated fairly clearly that the economic crisis is not just the fault of Republicans or Wall Street greedheads but a deeper, broader "collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age."

I read "collective failure to make hard choices" as a warning that Obamaism will include sacrifices for all of us and, although he didn't mention it this morning, I hear entitlement programs. Over the last few weeks, Obama has been talking about taking on entitlements, which are on an unsustainable course that will bankrupt the government if the growth rate is not brought under control. I've never been impressed with Obama's willingness to require sacrifice from anyone other than the wealthy, but lately he has been signaling that phase two (phase one involves trillions of dollars, all of them borrowed, on stimulus and modernization spending) of his grand vision will include tackling the biggest long-term threat to the government's fiscal future, the big three entitlement programs.

Pragmatism, or a warning to liberals?

"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. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government."

With Bill "the era of big government is over" Clinton also sitting behind him, Obama issued a warning that reached out in all directions. He's been saying this, also, since the election. He's a pragmatist. He's for what works, whether it makes the government bigger or smaller, whether it increases regulation or increases the freedom of the market. Of course views will continue to differ on what will work and even on what has worked. But I hear Obama promising to cut programs that are not worth what taxpayers are spending on them.

Some liberals may also have been discommoded by "Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred." It's only a metaphor, but many on the left have argued that war is the wrong metaphor for fighting terrorism. He followed it later with a more eloquent, less militaristic: "for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

I liked the offer Obama made "to those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent." It's hard to picture how this program is put into operation, but the spirit seems right to me, rather than promising to run around the world overthrowing them, to promise that "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

In the interest of balance, CNN's Jeff Toobin, who often distinguishes himself with his fearless willingness to say what he thinks, just panned the speech, calling it a "missed opportunity" that was lacking in any memorable phrases, equivalent to "we have nothing to fear but fear itself" or "ask not what your country can do for you." He predicted it will soon join the list of inaugural addresses that are "quickly forgotten."

Of course, the discussion of how far America has come since the day when Obama's own father couldn't have been served in a local restaurant was most welcome and appropriate. Obama seemed to go to some lengths to avoid dwelling on the symbolic importance of the first African-American presidency. As I rushed to get this post up, my friend Joel Goldstein, an authority on the vice presidency, emailed me this reaction:

"I believe this inaugural speech will be remembered more for what we saw than what we heard. Not that message wasn't important or eloquent; it was. But the speech did not have the poetic resonance of, say, Lincoln's Second or JFK's inaugural, or of some of Obama's speech. But the visual image, of Obama looking back towards the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. looked out, will provide the most lasting image of the day and one of the unique and inspiring visuals of our history."

What think?

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Comments (18)

Hi Eric, I too thought that this was overall a very good speech, and I agree with much of your assessment. The inclusion of non-believers in the speech was especially welcome, especially after eight years where it seemed that the lines between government and religion were being intentionally erased, to the detriment of anyone who didn't meet the far-right's definition of Christian.

I do have a couple of nits to pick, though. First, on the phrasing of the "war on terror". What I and many others found disturbing was not that it was a metaphor but that it tied our fight not to the people who conducted terror but instead to the idea of terror itself. Terrorism is not a state or an organization, it is a method of conducting a struggle, one that we find reprehensible but the goal should be to fight the terrorists. Accomplish that, and terrorism will go away. In that light, it's interesting to note that Obama's phraseology was not against terror but instead against the network of people who conduct terror. It's a subtle difference, but in this context I think it's a highly meaningful one.

Second, the matter of entitlements and who will be called upon to sacrifice. The use of the word entitlements brings up the whole array of government social programs, and it's much better to focus in on particular programs than to try and generalize. Social Security, for example, is funded through the next generation. Medicare, in comparison, is in financial distress, but that's a function of rising and exorbitant health costs rather than a fault of the program itself. Take the for-profit HMO's and insurance companies out of the equation by adopting universal health care and all those administrative costs associated with supporting the huge insurance bureaucracy will be greatly diminished. That's the way it works in the rest of the world, there's no reason, other than the intrenched interests who benefit from the current system, we can't do it here.

Finally, when it come to sacrifice, the looming economic crisis will undoubtedly affect us all, and require sacrifice from us all. But perhaps it's time to consider those few who have benefitted so much from the last eight year's economic and tax policies, the wealthy one percent who now control over ninety percent of the wealth in this country, and asking them to make a sacrifice that's in proportion to the benefits they have received, instead of cutting back on programs that keep the elderly and impoverished from starving or dying from lack of health care.

I tend to agree with you often, Eric, but this commentary is spooky because it is so much in line with my responses. At first, I felt the speech was a little flat because it did not soar above his speeches on race or after that loss in New Jersey (the speech that was the basis for "Yes We Can").

Then I realized that Obama had made a choice. He chose not to deliver a speech that would compete with Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural. Instead, he chose to deliver a speech that was perfect for our times.

I trst that one day people will generally appreciate how pitch-perfect his sense was of what to say and how to say it. He bypassed big applause lines and instead gave us a speech that (as you point out) contained a number of nuanced points that point the way to his new way of doing politics.

He could have gone for "wow!" but chose not to. There can be greatness in the modesty involved with being more appropriate than impressive.

Good analysis, Eric. I liked the speech, too. It was both stern and warm, at relevant times. I'll let the words swim in my head for a little before I decide what is most memorable. Mostly, I thought it all made a lot of sense and was smart, considering the weight of soooooo many issues that needed to be addressed.

The highlighted quotes are also what stood out to me. Excellent analysis. Thank you.

The rest of the world is made up of intelligent people. With that in mind, I thought the speech was outstanding. We once again have a president who is legitimately the leader of the free world.

The last guy? Sorry. He may have been the leader of the free world, but if so, it was despite his rhetoric.

I thought the speech was too long. One more rewrite!
I loved the smacks upside the head he gave Bush/Cheney.
I thought the event kind of overwhelmed the speech. Every once in a while, the camera would pull back and show the Washington Mall, full of American citizens celebrating the re-taking of the government from the hands of the neocons. Seen in this context, I thought the speech was an attempt to calm everyone down. Today is a day to party, but tomorrow we get to work.
My bottom line take on this speech is similar to yours. Obama is going to take on all the problems, not just some of them, or some this year/some next year. Obama is going to take on all of the sacred cows, not just some of them. You think Social Security reform is a big deal? How about farm subsidies to millionare farmers that don't need it? How about the frigging oil depletion allowance? How about subsidizing ethanol made from corn? Ask not whose ox is going to be gored, because you are getting yours too.

Eric--
So far I've read the speech, but not your commentary. So I may post more later.
In general, I'm wary of reading too much into the speech; words are cheap, and these don't really commit him to a whole lot.
To be positive, it was clearly written by someone to whom words matter, and who is careful about what he says. That's a nice change. But it's still rhetoric.
After two years of listening to the talk, I'm waiting to see the walk.

I think this speech will be remembered historically precisely for its lack of soundbites.

A lot of time and talk on news websites and NPR is being given (or at least was being given in the hours after the speech) to not only the business like quality of the speech but also the fact that he didn't play up the first black president angle. I think you and other commenters are absolutely correct that the image of Pres. Obama taking oath on Lincoln's bible says it all--the equivalent image of our time to the earth rising over the moon image from the 60's.

What I loved about Pres. Obama's speech and take on today is that it's not about a cult of personality, it's not about celebrity, it's not about who's right or who's wrong or why my side is so much better than your side. As Dr. King put it, Pres. Obama's speech was not about the color of his skin (and our obsession with tabloid celebrity news) but about the content of his (and our) national character and legacy.

Bravo, Pres. Obama! Bravo!

Off on a tangent, I was very impressed by the Rev. Rick Warren's opening prayer.
It was a Christian prayer (although he did begin with a Sh'ma!), but as nondenominational as it could possibly be; I'm sure that the firebreathing Fundies are totally bent out of joint.
Rather than the formulaic "in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ", he introduced the Lord's Prayer by giving the Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and English pronunciations of Jesus; a nice touch.
Personally, I think that Obama's choice was vindicated.
If one wants to push the interpretation, one could even say that by calling for The Lord's blessing on all members of government, he was implicitly blessing gays (but this is a push, which is also my point about trying to interpret Obama's speech).

Censorship?

Oh, right..."Change" and all that...forgot for a minute. New rules in effect.

I'm enjoying Eric's take and the commentary response here much more than the speech.

Eric noted that "The megathemes were a reflection of the campaign: change, hope, unity" which is true.

To those of us that have, shall we say, a more pragmatic view of our new President, however, it simply mirrors his substance-free campaign...no doubt he's working on some "megadetails" to backfill those "megathemes", and he'll get back to us in short order, eh?

Steve Grooms opines "He could have gone for "wow!" but chose not to.", which leaves me wondering if that might not be an excellent jumping-off point for explaining why none of those "megathemes" quite gelled in the coming four years.

Many of my conservative friends are wishing Obama the best today, but I choose to skip the smarmy platitudes.

Given the (very) few details that he has disclosed, especially in regards to wallpapering the country-side with IOU's and socialized medicine, I hope President Obama falls flat on his face...with all due respect, of course.

Thomas, perhaps you weren't listening when President Obama said, "It's time to put away childish things." Your last comment sounds very like you're stamping your foot and saying, "well, if you won't do it my way, I'm going to pick up my ball and go home!"

You don't seem to care that if our president fails, so does the nation.

I'm not sure why Paul Brandon thinks (wishes?) that we "firebreathing Fundies" are "totally bent out of joint" over Warren's prayer. As one of those "Fundies" that Mr. Brandon disparages, I liked the prayer very much, and most of what I'm reading from similar-minded folk is that they liked it, too.

Mr. Brandon implies that we didn't like that Warren pronounced Jesus' name in different languages, but he misses the point. The Body of Christ includes ALL people from every race and country, regardless of what language they speak. What a great reminder that we ALL will face Jesus some day, and we will hear Him in our langauge, just like Pentecost 2,000 years ago.

And finishing with the Lord's Prayer was great. Can't get any more Christian than that.

In regards to Warren's blessing of government officials, he's simply following Romans 13, which I encourage all of us to do.

Ed--
My apologies -- I was referring to the Jerry Falwell breed, who I don't think would agree with you.
And I was not implying the Fundamentalists would object to pronouncing Jesus' name in different languages; simply that it struck me as a nice outreach. It simply struck me as different from what I've heard from some more extreme individuals.
Obviously, he left some things open to interpretation, so your mileage may differ.

And from the Associated Press:

"Evangelical pastor Rick Warren, whose participation drew criticism from liberals and gay rights groups, directly invoked Jesus as expected in his invocation, but did so personally.

"I humbly ask this in the name of the one who changed my life," he prayed.

He also quoted from the most important prayer in Judaism, the Sh'ma, when he said, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is One," and he called God "the compassionate and merciful one," a phrase from Muslim devotion.

"His was as inclusive a prayer as an evangelical can give," said Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, a leading evangelical school in Pasadena, Calif."

Wouldn't it have been so much better if, in stead of saying:

"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers."

Obama had said:

"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Brights."

The term is tightly defined and has a more positive connotation than most others!

"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers."

Reading Melissa Etheridge's Huffington Post on Rick Warren, and then seeing that Warren's speech really did turn out OK for what it was, and then* hearing our new President include folks who share my philosophy on religion.. well, all I can see is that it gave me chills.

I am So Grateful today.

Glad I found your site, as well. I look forward to more reading here.

* I had to catch everything afterward as my internet connection at work chose Noon as the time it would go down. {sigh} :)

I doubt that many people are familiar with the term 'Brights' (speaking as a member), and many of those who do associate it with Dawkins' 'in-your-face' attitude.

A fellow 'bright' responding -- rare indeed. Prior to the address, actually well before this special event, I began drafting a letter to the newly elected President regarding my concern that he had not clearly explained, to my satisfaction at least, to what extent his personal belief in God would effect his directives.
Non-believers and agnostics have had to endure eons of overzealous religiousness but the Bush years proved to be a horrendous assault on American humanists.
With one line, one Eric noted...
"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers."
I was able to delete both the draft and my concerns.