Obama’s Velvet-Glove Inaugural Address

Straight Up: POTUS went for the light touch. A good speech, but maybe not one for the history books.

Getty Images
Getty Images

(The Root) — Obama deserves very high but perhaps not superlative marks for his second inaugural address. It had more the character of an inside-the-park home run, not a grand slam. A 9 on my Olympic scorecard, not a full 10. Not a standout, A-plus effort, but certainly a quite solid A-minus. 

The speech will indeed be remembered, but probably not as one of his signature moments. In the same breath, let me say there is much that is clever and true and oh so right about this speech that is well worthy of praise.

Why not an A? First, save for his declarations about confronting global warming, the speech was a little too oblique in naming the current great challenges before us. He rightly did not want to sound a partisan note. And he understandably did not launch into a list of coming policy goals. But the paralysis in Washington brought on by the politics of economic brinkmanship, of the “my way or the highway” negotiation and of anti-government ideological extremity could have been called out more squarely.

To be sure, Obama stressed that the time has come to act. He also spoke of obligations in the present that have ramifying implications long into the future. And he repeatedly hit a note of American can-do optimism. Yet the forces standing in the path of rising to these challenges were never sharply identified. 

Second, the speech did not quite connect government duties and the expectations for both our collective financial and individual personal responsibilities. Doing so in a pithy and cogent way is no easy task. I freely confess that I am not up to it. But I think a clear articulation of this nexus of concerns is part of what is (painfully) missing from our politics today. It is also part of what I yearned for in Obama’s second inaugural address. He gave us the glimmerings of an answer, but not a full-throated message.

Third, the speech had no immediate catchphrase that defines this day. I do not find the “with malice toward none, with charity for all” that Lincoln gave us in his second inaugural. Nor can I extract the parallel to “ask not what your country can do for you” of John F. Kennedy’s first inaugural. Nor is there the Ronald Reagan-esque blunt declaration from his first inaugural that “government is the problem.”