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Few presidential inaugural speeches rise to brilliance and are memorable. President Barack Obama’s speech had the potential to rise to the occasion of the words of Presidents Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy. In my lifetime I cannot remember a speech looked forward to with such anticipation as the one Tuesday.
I watched the inaugural events at the Hennepin County Library in Minneapolis along with a crowd of several hundred. I was asked to give a talk before the events to set the tone. I of course knew that I was barely a footnote to the real events.
As I reflect on Obama’s speech I am struck with but one observation. While his inauguration and speech were history, the contents of what he had to say were not. The symbolism of the first African-American, Gen Xer, post-racial, post-post Cold War, etc., president were significant. All this was clearly on the minds of the very diverse crowd I sat with. There was also relief and happiness in this crowd that the Bush era was over.
I was struck by how flat the first 2/3s or 3/4s was. It had little of the powerful rhetoric or inspiration that one had grown to expect from him. In some sense, I thought, I too was a victim of expectations. I had anticipated a better speech. Maybe the expectations were too high.
Yet a woman sitting next to me turned and asked me what I thought and before I spoke she said that the speech was disappointing until the end. No lines stood out, no phrases were worth remembering. It was just another inaugural speech that would be remembered more for who gave it than what was said.
What I really liked most was the Benediction. This is the speech that Obama should have given. Less emphasis on policy and specifics (Obama really gave more of a State of the Union talk) and more on inspiring. Others I talked to agreed. Many thought he conceded too much to the conservatives, although reaching across the aisles is a trademark of Obama. Still others wanted to be inspired by his words. Some might have been. But with the crowd I was with, the words mattered little. It was Obama himself who was the star; simply becoming president was the inspiration and importance attached to this speech.
David Schultz, an expert on elections and politics, is a professor in the Hamline University School of Business, where he teaches public, nonprofit and business administration.