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Barack Obama's Speech: A Disappointing Hodgepodge

Barack Obama has the makings of a great orator, but his inaugural speech was not a great oration. It was well-delivered, but it consisted of a hodgepodge of themes, injunctions, and applause lines that did not speak directly to the crisis that the country faces.

The speech was unusually abstract. It lacked any reference to people or situations in the present. Obama was most vivid in describing moments long past--such as George Washington crossing the Delaware. Of course, an abstract speech can have its use if it is the service of compelling argument. But the concepts, and the argument on which the speech hung, were neither original nor compelling.

Part of the problem was that much of the argument was implied; and what was implied did not ring true. Premise: America's success in the past was based on people who "struggled and sacrificed and worked." Conclusion: What we need now is a "new era of responsibility." What is missing is a middle term, and what is implied is that the reason we are in trouble now is because the present generation has acted irresponsibly. Is that really at the heart of America's difficulties at home or in the world? It has the ring of Biblical prophecy, but not of truth.

There were subsidiary themes that seemed ill-suited to the occasion. Obama returned to his earlier primary campaign oratory about politics and partisanship. We need to end "the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics." Yes, fine, but again: Does that get at the problem now? Is Obama facing partisan warfare? Is Washington deeply divided? It may become so, but the evidence of the last month does not suggest that this is a critical problem.

Obama did hit upon the nature of the challenges facing us, but I don't think he had anything interesting to say about them. "Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred," he declared. This strikes me as either boilerplate or an exaggeration of the danger posed by al Qaeda. It is reminiscent of George W. Bush and his catch-all war on terror. Obama and the country clearly face grave problems overseas; but they can't be reduced to a "far-reaching network." The difficulty is more in their multiplicity than in their individual gravity.

The economic crisis? "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age." Greed? Yes, but greed condoned and encouraged by government. Hard choices? What does these refer to? Not enough retrofitting homes? Auto companies making the wrong cars? Obama doesn't say. And I don't think he could have been specific without revealing the shallowness of his diagnosis. I have my own view of what went wrong, but that's not important. It's whether Obama put one across, or whether he offered the semblance, but not the reality, of a diagnosis.

You can say, of course, that I am treating his speech as a political argument, and not as a piece of oratory, but the problem is that it existed in the netherworld between inspiring oratory and political argument. It had intimations of both, but lived up to the promise of neither. I suspect Obama chose this ambiguous course partly because of the difficulty of the occasion. Argument requires pros and cons, truth and falsity, truth-tellers and misleaders, but an inaugural speech is an instrument of national, and even international, unification. Thus, some who might have actually qualified as misleaders and villains (e.g. the greedy) make only a fleeting appearance, while scorn is heaped upon others (the "cynics... who question the scale of our ambition") who are inventions of the moment rather than real adversaries. That's certainly understandable, but it didn't make for good oratory or argument.

--John B. Judis

Be sure to read Eve Fairbanks' response, "John, You're Too Hard On Obama's Speech,"  Noam Scheiber's response, "Solid Themes, But No Style Points," and Marty Peretz's, "The Great Oration of Barack Obama."