Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama's inaugural address-down

President Obama (which, by the way, somehow sounds even more exotic to me than Barack Obama) stepped into this inaugural celebration with high expectations. Before I jump right into the address, a quick word on the swearing in...

I would not be surprised if a nervous few non-believers (non-believers, that is, in Obama's reported mastery of all-things-politics, not the non-believers Obama reached out to in his speech) were a bit shaken by the apparent flub of Obama's swearing in. After all, Obama is the master communicator -- the one who gives everyone the hope that we now have someone running the country who is not so easily stumped. Could this be a small sign of weakness, or signal of being overwhelmed -- a crack in Obama armor? Actually, no. According to Ben Zimmer at Language Log, it was actually a flub by Chief Justice Roberts that led to the shaky stagecraft. Yes, our shared public persona of Barack Obama shall remain -- at least for now -- air-tight and as solid as Barack.

With regards to his address, I didn't know quite what to expect. Could he really compete with some of the astonishing performances he gave during the primaries? Could he one-up JFK? I doubted it, so my expectations were grounded, yet open.

What I heard was a speech that traded in the soaring, optimistic rhetoric that defined his early campaign speeches for that of a proud, but scolding father who knows we haven't been on our best behavior, and is eager to help us turn things around, but only if we're willing to put in the hard work to help make it happen. It was a somber speech -- one that used history as context, not as a mission. It was a serious speech that condemned many of the decisions and philosophies of the outgoing Bush administration so starkly that I actually felt a little uncomfortable knowing that Bush and Cheney were right behind him, listening to his every word. It also happened to be a speech that redefined and repositioned America's foreign policy in one fell swoop, outlining the ground rules for global engagement. All countries of the world -- both dear and diabolical -- received invitations to engage the sole global superpower of the world, complete with instructions and ground rules.

It was in the last portion of the speech, however, where I saw a tangible, palpable connection between his face and his words. I could sense that of all the messages he conveyed, the final message meant the most to him at a deep, personal level. It was the message of responsibility, duty, character, and spirit. It is through these "truths," as he put it, that we as individuals shape our nation's character. That it is only through the collective, combined force of millions of citizens working toward a common set of goals can a nation overcome its most dire challenges.

The very fact that these themes needed to be conveyed in his address tells us a lot about what we've let ourselves -- and thus our nation -- become over the years. The notions of fear, greed, and divisiveness has defined the past eight years, and probably even longer. Yet, our eager acceptance of this Presidential dress-down also tells us how eager we are to snap back -- eager to reclaim the soul of our nation through our own personal soul-searching, enabled by a sense of pride in our shared national history of courage, hard work and innovation.

As I step back to assess the overall tone, style, content and delivery, I can not help but think that President Obama's inaugural address felt more like a civil sermon than a secular address. Yes, he's now the President, but Barack Obama also seems to be playing the role of High Priest of the Civil Church of America.


9 comments:

I had exactly the same feelings about Obama scolding the previous administration with Bush and a wheelchair-bound Cheney just behind him. But boy, do they deserve to be scolded!

It was a very down-to-business type speech, wasn't it.

Interestingly, a British friend of mine thought it had a "lowering expectations" feel, and compared it to speeches by Tony Blair. I didn't interpret it that way at all.

Of course, these are only words - let's see what President Obama can actually get done before we start judging.

Unlike many, I did not see Obama specifically scolding the prior administration toward the end of the speech. I did see him condemning the choices that were made by Bush/Cheney, but the larger narrative was about all of us -- how we all have let our leaders lead us down the path toward our worst instincts.

Sure, Bush created a culture of negative leadership, but for leaders to be leaders, they need followers.

I see what you mean Jon, and I know we should be taking ownership of our own decisions, but I do believe that the "culture of negative leadership" has been very effective at modifying our behavior. Supporters frothed at the mouth with fervor; those on the fence seemed to fall on the wrong side for way too long; and opponents were browbeaten into inaction.

I think many people start this day with a feeling of cautious optimism. For positive change to happen, Obama needs to encourage this and build momentum.

I was actually somewhat taken back by some of his sentences. Jon Stewart drew a parallel between those parts of his speech to those of the outgoing President's, and while I wouldn't have gone that far with my comparison, he did make a very valid point: we've heard some of this rhetoric before and it was all too familiar to my ears.

"High Priest of the Civil Church of America" - yeah, I am actually very afraid that people are putting him on such a high pedestal that they will believe and follow EVERYTHING he says. That will find us on the other side of the horse (instead of on it). With Bush we pretty much questioned everything he's done lately - now we're going to accept everything President Obama says unconditionally? I sense great danger in that.

Lala,

I have yet to re-read or re-watch the address, and I may take on a project of dressing down the dress down right here, should I have the time.

We may have heard similar rhetoric (and that should be of no surprise -- Obama and W share equal amounts of political savvy), but we are hearing the rhetoric from very different souls.

It's far too easy to pattern match verbal acuity and charisma as a common link of intent. I say bunk to that. That is far too one-dimensional of an assessment.

As is commonly uttered, consider the source.

You might decide to be skeptical of everyone before they earn your trust. That is your prerogative.

But I think it would be a shame if you and others now have become the equivalent of an abused dog -- with every attempt of etending a hand to pet the dog, no matter the intent, is assumed to be an attack, and the dog bites needlessly because it cannot overcome its instinctual need to protect itself after being abused.

I hope that we as more highly sentient and rational beings are able to adapt to changing environments better than that.

Don't get me wrong, I applaud the guy and all of his decisions already on the first day on the job! All I am saying is that we shouldn't let our guard down and we should remain vigilant of what is being said and done by President Obama, otherwise we'll truly make him a High Priest and we'll just become his yes-men.

Not everything Obama does and say is sacrosanct and untouchable. His inaugural speech included. That's all I'm saying.

What I find so fascinating about the Obama concept is that many of us (including you, LaLa) feel the need to tell others that you are not one of the blind converted. That you are one of the ones that will keep their head straight and not be swooned by Obamarama.

The fascinating aspect about this is that I know of not a single person who is under his spell so thoroughly that these caveats are even needed.

I wonder what compels us to feel the need to separate ourselves from a theoretical throng of blind followers that might not even exist?

I would argue that this is a knee-jerk reaction to the Right's effective politicking. They overplay Obama enthusiasm for Obamamania, putting any Obama supporter on the defensive for being a thoughtless lemming.

I think classic "projection" best describes this dynamic.

I think part of it is that we on the left have seen this sort of blind following by those on the right. It's a mindset that we have to snap ourselves out of. But it might take a little time.

As usual with his speeches, you need a bit of time to reflect and capture the myriad of references, layers of political perspectives and even the multiple meanings of the individual words and phrases. My sense was that it was comforting (hearing his calm and measured voice) and absolutely appropriate to the times and the occasion. I have already downloaded the speech and gone through to see what I might have missed (even though I was there) and now because of your piece I need to go back and LOOK at the videos to study his expressions more closely. Thank you for pointing this out.

A also agree with your comments about Pres. Obama adopting a fatherly tone with us - but like truly effective fathers, he talked about all of us working to reframe our future, not just the "bad" ones.

Now that the Inauguration is complete, we really can move on in new directions and begin the hard work to remake America and ourselves and may the naysayers and critics find a fresh perspective that allows them to become aligned with us hopeful ones.

Happy New Year!

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