Was Obama's Inaugural Address Too Mean to George W. Bush? Stop Whining

Bush can take the slings and arrows of Barack Obama.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

According to this morning's New York Times, former Bush administration officials didn't like the tone of the Obama inaugural address, thinking it too tough on their ex-boss. Oh, wah!

There certainly were bits of Obama's speech that seemed to implicitly rebuke the ex-president or refute his policies, without specifically naming him—the passages about a failure to make hard choices (though Obama described the failure as "collective," spreading blame beyond Bush), trying to set up false choices between security and free society ideals, the country being ready to lead internationally "once more," and, my personal favorite, restoring "science to its rightful place."

While Obama campaigned as a warm-and-fuzzy postpartisan with a desire to change the tone in Washington, that was a subset of his larger message of change. Specifically, change from the policies of the Bush administration that, oh, yeah, have been thoroughly rejected by the electorate. And the notion of a sharp break from the past is a classic theme in inaugural addresses, especially at a time when the White House is switching parties. This is the stuff of memorable inaugurals.

And while a line thanking the predecessor for his public service has become de rigueur, the fact that the outgoing president cooperated with his successor is no more relevant to a speech launching the Obama administration than are the tender feelings of his die-hard defenders. (Bush, to his credit, reportedly did not give voice to any offense he may have felt over the speech.)

Bush himself emphasized "personal responsibility" and "private character" in 2001, which many viewed as a slap at his predecessor, and one in keeping with critiques he had made on the campaign trail. While Bush's chief first-term speechwriter, Michael Gerson, said at a Brookings event this week that that was not how those themes were intended, the White House circle would have had to have been fools to not realize that that's how they would be taken. Similarly, JFK's 1961 discussion of a new generation of Americans coming to power was seen as a slap at Eisenhower, in keeping with Kennedy's campaign critiques about the need to get the country moving again. And, of course, FDR was famously tough on Herbert Hoover in 1933.

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