Although there was no oratorical zinger, Obama’s address was perfectly delivered
No question, President Barack Obama is as gifted a speaker as any of his 42 predecessors. And his inaugural address, therefore, was spirited, passionate, and perfectly delivered.
His clipped but pointed gestures, easy eye contact with the entire crowd, measured pacing and emphasis on just the right word—all stunning.
And his grade for his first speech as president? A solid “B.”
Not an “A” or even an “A-.” Rather, purely in terms of content, it was a practical, professional, businesslike “B.” And here’s why.
Unlike his election victory speech when Obama broke out of the box with one striking sentence that eloquently captured the historic moment, his inaugural address intro was standard, formulaic and flat.
Just as most others before him had uttered, he was “humbled” by the task, “grateful” for the trust, and “mindful” of the sacrifices others had made to see him to this point. All rather predictable.
Even worse, in next describing the environment in which he delivered his remarks, Obama—maybe the greatest speechmaker of our current time—resorted to some of the sorriest clichés of any time.
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Perhaps the most striking aspect of the inauguration—certainly the element Conservative pundits will seize on—is how the new president seemingly stumbled over the Oath of Office before so flawlessly delivering his inaugural address.
Upon closer examination, however, it was Chief Justice John Roberts who flubbed the instructions.
After addressing prior years’ “rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace” (bad enough), he said, “Yet every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms.”
One could imagine, as a result, the “clouds gathering” and “storms raging” in rhetoric classes throughout the nation.
The lone introductory bright spot was the new president’s gracious allusion to the old president’s generosity and cooperation.
But this was no signature Obama curtain raiser.
So, too, the style throughout was surprisingly pedestrian.
Not that it wasn’t entirely workmanlike with frequent use of repetition—”For us, they packed up their possessions … For us, they toiled … For us they fought;” metaphor—”We have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation;” and the Rule of 3’s—”We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.”
And in fairness, there were several excellent passages, with perhaps the best being, “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.“
But there was no chiseled-in-marble, oratorical zinger, no “Ask not what your country can do for you” or “Malice toward none” or “Nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Indeed, the new president, unlike many of his predecessors on this occasion, chose not even to allude to the time-honored words of the past. There was no quoting of Kennedy or Roosevelt or Lincoln or Martin Luther King. Only a perfunctory allusion at the conclusion to George Washington.
Stylistically, then, it was all rather ordinary, especially emanating from the gifted Obama.
Substantively, the address methodically and dispassionately laid out the challenges that confront the nation and the promise and the confidence that they would be met.
Obama’s thesis was clear: “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America—they will be met.“
Equally distinct was his demand that all of us—he and we—take accountability for solving the most significant of those challenges—from the economy to education to science to the environment.
This was no mere laundry list of aspirations. This was a pledge—delivered in a straightforward, stripped down, and no-nonsense manner—to get action.
In other words, this was precisely what the country needed most at this pivotal and perilous moment. Action. Not soaring rhetoric nor lofty optimism nor Messianic hope.
Rather, what we need now is a leader willing to put his foot down, renounce and expose the corrosive bickering and self-interest that dominates government, and make hard and necessary decisions in the public interest, always with a cool eye and pragmatic demeanor.
That’s why, I, for one, couldn’t have been more delighted that President Obama merited no more than a businesslike “B” in his inaugural address.
Fraser Seitel has been a communications counselor, lecturer, TV commentator and teacher for 30 years, and is a prominent public relations author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.