Tuesday, January 20, 2009
President Obama's Inaugural Address climbed no peaks
President Obama's Inaugural Address will not likely be mentioned with Franklin Roosevelt’s First Inaugural or John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural, much less Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. It was poorly constructed and forced in its delivery. Worst of all, Obama missed his opportunity to embolden Americans to recapture their misplaced sense of national purpose.
Early in the speech, he said:
“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.”
By saying, categorically, that the challenges “will be met,” Obama invites Americans to be complacent at one of the country’s most critical moments.
Later, he veers close to what we were led to believe would be the real message of his address – re-dedication to individual and collective responsibility. But he missed the mark with these anticlimactic words:
“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
What a letdown! For Obama, the “work of remaking America” is nothing more heroic than building “roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines,” and improving health care.
These objectives are fine, but they don’t address Americans’ need to recover their sense of national purpose, of the kind of collective action that has continually breathed new life into the words of our country’s founding documents.
Obama seems to suggest we don’t need to do anything so basic:
“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”
But have Americans “chosen hope over fear”? All around us we see numerous examples that tell another, far more problematic story. It’s no so much that most of us are paralyzed with fear, but that we are doubtful – about our financial system, about our economy, about the ability of either the private or public sector to respond to crises that radiate throughout the U.S. and beyond to every section of the globe. We are sometimes even doubtful about ourselves, wondering if we have distracted ourselves from purposeful civic action by clinging to a distorted sense of national exceptionalism, consumerism and perhaps excessive attention to our personal and family lives.
Actually, it was invocation speaker Rick Warren who ventured into this sensitive zone, imploring:
“Help us, O God, to remember that we are Americans, united not by race, or religion, or blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all. When we focus on ourselves, when we fight each other, when we forget you, forgive us. When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone, forgive us. When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us.”
Warren’s message was that Americans must get back on the path to accountability. He didn't match Moses admonishing the idol-enamored Israelis, but he was not mealy mouthed. In contrast, Obama said all we had to do was, in effect, pour concrete, pound nails and computerize medical records.
The 44th President's Inaugural Address didn't reach toward greatness. But Obama will, in the weeks and months ahead, sure have more opportunities to inspire Americans to reclaim the true greatness of their country. I am sure the new President, a quick learner, will seize them.