Assessing the Inauguration Speech of Barack Obama

Obama traded Kennedyesque historic soundbites for a Reaganesque tone.


By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Unlike most Americans, who watched Barack Obama on their flat screens at home, or on the giant Jumbotrons erected on the Mall, I was in the press seats at the Capitol and saw him take the oath of office not as an image, but in person, though from some distance away.

And his inaugural address was not, I decided, a great speech.

Nor, I concluded, after navigating my way out of the great crowd and the cold and to my desk, did the transcript of Obama's words especially dazzle me.

There was no historic sound bite, as far as I could tell—no Rooseveltian dismissal of fear, or Kennedyesque challenge to "Ask not what your country can do for you. ..."

I did not feel, as I did four years ago listening from the same spot to George W. Bush's ideological challenge to the world's tyrants, that there was much historic ground being broken—word-wise, that is.

But then I started watching the clips of Obama's speech online. And I came to the conclusion that this was a very good speech indeed. And I settled upon Reaganesque as an adjective.

Obama is like a great film actor. He can impart, with a furrowed brow or lifted hand, or a shake of his head, considerable meaning to his words. He has great presence, and bearing.

He can give heft to phrases that look clunky or trite on paper—"we gather because we have chosen hope over fear"—through the skill of his delivery.

And in those instances where he chooses to be poetic—as in the Sandburgian ode to "the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things" or the Lincolnesque reminder that "the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages"—it makes it that much more effective.

Later, I spoke with Curt Smith, who worked as a wordsmith for George H.W. Bush, and he shared some of my thoughts.

"It was not a great speech—not lilting, not exalting," said Smith. "It was however an ideal speech for what he wanted to do. I think he set the tone superbly."

The new president may not need punchlines. Said Smith: "I am struck by Obama's speeches. We less remember quotable lines than the temper of the speech, the tenor of the speech—and I think he hit that exactly."

I agree. As Ted Widmer, another former presidential speechwriter (from the Clinton White House) told me, Obama began his new job with, "All in all, a great 20 minutes of work for the American people."

I give it an "A."

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