President Obama’s speech was interesting, dignified, and unmemorable, like so many inaugural addresses. That does not mean it was unimportant. As a speech it had a few clumsy moments when it strained for effect, but it is part of the new president’s oratorical skill to leave you thinking better of the speech because he gave it. His demeanor and delivery elevated it above the rather ordinary level of its political tropes and themes. A new era of responsibility? George W. Bush already called for that in 2001, as did Bill Clinton before him. Put the stale ideological debates of the past behind us? Ditto Bush, Clinton (remember the Third Way?), and even Michael Dukakis (“competence, not ideology”), though not, thank goodness, in an actual inaugural speech.
And I share Paul Mirengoff’s annoyance at the incoherence of the overall conceptual frame:
The speech was classic Obama — the kind of fine-sounding, frivolous fare in which the idea that we face specific trade-offs is dismissed as cynicism, even as we’re told in the most general way of the need for sacrifice. The debates in which serious people on both sides of the political spectrum have engaged for decades were dismissed as “childish,” as if there exists some magic but unstated synthesis that everyone up until now has missed. Yet we were told that we face tough choices.
I don’t think this is so much classic Obama as classic politics. Strategically, the speech was a commonplace effort to reduce resistance to a political agenda by generating a vague sense of uplifting cohesion and casting any possible opposition as outmoded, small-spirited, and immature. Politicians take this tack because it works, and Obama’s really good at it. People liked it. Obama worked the perennial rhetoric of transformative politics expertly, but if you were expecting something truly transformative, beyond the transformative fact of a black president, then you’ve got to be a bit disappointed.