There’s already been some criticism of Obama’s speech today. Not that it wasn’t well written. It was incredibly well written. But that it didn’t have the soaring oratorical flourishes of FDR’s or JFK’s etc., or even of many earlier Obama speeches.
I think there’s some validity to that. It’s assumed that was deliberate. That he didn’t want to rouse the kind of emotional catharsis his campaign speeches often did, but instead wanted to impress upon those listening here, and around the world, the seriousness of the problems we face and of his commitment to address them and of his need for the support of all of us.
Maybe that’s true. There certainly were some well-wrought phrases, and even some poetic ones. But I have to admit, I missed some of the heart tugging and satisfying lines of his previous speeches.
Like the one that put him on the public political map at the 2004 Democratic convention when he got into the rhythmic cadences of his rap about how it’s not the blue states of America or the red states of America it’s the United States of America.
Or even the “Yes we can” mantra. I would have liked it if he had thrown a few of those kinds of familiar Obama slogans into his speech. And I wish he had made it even more personal.
I know, or assume, he was thinking of the world audience, and of the partisans here at home, and he did make it clear in several catchy lines his commitment to diplomacy first, to inclusiveness and to progressive programs.
But except for that one reference to the fact that if his father had been in DC sixty years ago he wouldn’t have been served in restaurants there (there was a big hotel for “colored only” in DC still in the early 1960s called “THE WHITE LAW HOTEL” as a direct affront to the segregation laws, I always made a point of driving by it on my way through DC in those days), the speech seemed too busy making connections between these times and the country’s history.
That was obviously deliberate, an attempt, mainly successful, to link Obama’s presidency to George Washington’s and Lincoln’s, as well as to the Constitution and other founding documents and to the battles fought to create this country and to keep it “free.”
In many ways it was a way of making it clear that he doesn’t see himself, or want to be seen, as just “the first African-American” president, but as the bridge between these more “multi-cultural” times and our “white” dominated history, giving it all legitimacy and thereby legitimizing him as a president of all “Americans” in the tradition of all of “American” history.
Not a bad goal, and from the responses of Republicans and even right-wingers, as well as from white men you might suspect (I certainly do) of having once been not so tolerant. Most of them, or a lot of them who were interviewed at least, seemed impressed and even relieved and grateful that Obama presented himself as part of that tradition and not so much as a revolutionary break with it, despite the reality that in many ways he does represent just such a revolutionary break.
I suspect the speech is better read as written than heard as spoken. It sounded like pretty great writing. But as someone who gave speeches decades ago to large crowds at outdoor rallies and such, I know the power of making it personal, keeping it conversational and accessible (I always tried to say whatever I had to say so that my eighteen-year-old former self would have understood it) and brief.
Obama obviously had a different agenda today, and it looks like he accomplished it successfully. But for all those people (if the media says two million you can figure more) in what is now the largest crowd ever gathered in this country’s history, waiting for hours in the freezing weather to be inspired, I would have liked to have seen him make a few more concessions to them—and the rest of us watching at home and elsewhere—of personality, of passion and of Obama charisma and oratorical music.
But having said all that, it was still magnificently moving, and January 20, 2009 continues to be one happy day.