A friend of mine asked me on Facebook what I thought of Obama’s speech yesterday, and I told him my initial reaction was ‘ho-hum.’ It did a good job of listing the challenges we face as a nation and world, and of calling us to action. I thought its foreign policy section was particularly strong. But the address by itself didn’t move me much on an emotional level, and I certainly didn’t think it had any of those memorable, JFK-worthy turns of phrases that would be quoted fifty years down the road.
Yet, I decided to reread the transcript again to see if I missed anything. As I kind of expected, it was better the second time around. I thought there was a more cohesive theme centered around responsibility, both individual and societal, than I remember getting from listening to the speech. I still think it lacked some emotional heft, and I still don’t see those quotable lines that will stand the test of time, but overall, it was well-constructed.
I hereby offer my (almost) line-by-line review:
My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.
It’s a good beginning, with that three-phrase construction (humbled, grateful, mindful) that all good speeches, and Obama’s in particular, use so effectively. This will be the only time we hear W’s name, but he throws some pointed daggers at the former (how good does that sound!) president for his policies later in the speech.
Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents.
So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.
When I first heard the speech, I thought the phrase ‘Gathering clouds and raging storms’ was a bit too much. Don’t gathering clouds precede raging storms? If he is specifically talking about this time, and not just generally, then i think gathering clouds would have been sufficient. As bad as things are today, they’ve certainly been worse in our history. Inflation under 5%, unemployment under 8%, no terrorist attack on our soil since 9/11. Part of my issue with government’s response to the current economic crisis is we are throwing trillions of dollars at a problem which we don’t yet fully understand and which likely will need time to get resolved no matter how much stimulus we throw at it. Economies go through cycles…it’s par for the course. Overreacting, at the expense of any fiscal restraint, would be unwise.
The same is true with our foreign policy situation. Islamic fundamentalism is a very real threat. But overstating the threat, and thereby overreacting and overreaching with our strategies, only leads us to engage in intractable and irrelevant conflicts which can often end up making matters worse.
These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.
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.
This is to me seems like a lost chance for one of those memorable lines. ‘But know this, America – they will be met’ won’t cut it. Meeting challenges just doesn’t sound that impressive (‘How do you do, Challenge? My name is Barack.’)
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.
On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
‘The time has come to set aside childish things’ is a good line, though Obama can’t take credit for it. The rest of the paragraph is just full of cliched platitudes.
In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
All well and good, but what’s wrong with preferring leisure 8) (That’s just me pursuing ‘my full measure of happiness!”) And “the makers of things”? Really?!?
For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.
For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.
For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.
Another three-pack of repetitive phrasing. This one works well.
Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.
“Worked till their hands were raw” is one of the cliched phrases that Obama sometimes overuses. Struggled and sacrificed would have sufficed.
This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.
I really do hope we are ready to stop putting off unpleasant decisions, as I do feel that is one of the major reasons we are in the current crisis. But I’m not sure I’ve heard anything yet from Obama to suggest those are forthcoming.
For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.
One of his best paragraphs. It’s the call to action paragraph and there are some rather specific goals he is setting out here – some doable, some probably not, all important.
Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.
What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. Those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.
Just like it takes two to tango in an argument, it takes two to let go of an argument. Here he is addressing the concerns of the other side, letting it be known that he will not just be your father’s liberal, but that government will only spend when it can do so wisely and effectively. I hope the other side is similarly willing to let go of those stale political arguments and work toward compromise.
Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control — and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.
Starts off with another line for the economic conservatives and free-market proponents in the crowd, before laying down the hammer by letting it be known that regulation and income redistribution will not be completely unavoidable. I love the content, even if the wording isn’t very poetic — “depended not just on the size of our GDP, but on the reach of our prosperity” and “nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous” just aren’t very pretty.
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers … our found fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
Now this is the shit. It’s poetic, it’s forceful, and it is a direct slap in the face to the arrogance and imperialism of the Bush Doctrine, the Patriot Act, the Iraq war, and all of the other shortsighted foreign policy maneuvers of the old administration.
We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort — even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.
Another common Obama trick. Argue forcefully for one side of an argument – in this case, the quiet retreat from various military entanglements and the militaristic policies of the Bush administration – but then end the thought by throwing a bone to the other side of the spectrum – in this case, a little bit of gonna-kill-the-terrorists macho, jingoistic talk.
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
Alright! A nod to the non-believers!! But even without that welcome addition, this is a great noble sentiment, if perhaps a bit idealized (there’s still plenty of hatred and division even still in our own country, and the world is a long way away from watching the lines of tribe dissolve and revealing our common humanity.)
To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
A direct nod to the Muslim community, which is pretty smart given how badly our reputation has suffered there over the past eight years. We will never win over the Islamic fundamentalists, but even moderate Muslims have felt understandably threatened by recent American policy. And I don’t buy the argument I’ve heard that Islam is too extreme and violent a religion to ever embrace Western ideals like democracy and liberty. This paragraph also includes one of his best sentences – “your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.” That one may stick around.
To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.
As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment — a moment that will define a generation — it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.
The obligatory salute to American troops. But it’s well-written, tying it into the speech’s larger theme of responsibility, service and sacrifice, with a poetic nod to our own heroic past – “just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages.”
For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.
This is where I thought the speech fell flat again. I usually hate it when politicians reference specific individuals, but in this case the examples seem too generic and cliched to really hit home emotionally. The last line in particular seems awkward and disconnected – a fireman battling flames and a parent nurturing a child are too different of concepts to be in the same sentence.
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.
This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.
The heart and true purpose of the speech – that the creation of America and its continued greatness has depended upon the solid values and work ethic of its citizens, and that we must re-embrace those characteristics if are to move ahead again. “The price and the promise of citizenship” is a sweet phrase. I like the reference to his African father, which makes the theme personal, and subtly brings up the historical significance of the moment without overemphasizing it the point of alienating anyone.
So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:
“Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it).”
If you can’t come up with any memorable quotes of your own, there’s no harm in using the poetry of past leaders, especially when it involves an appropriate metaphor to current circumstances and dovetails in nicely to the meaning you are trying to impart.
America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.
It’s a solid finish, harkening back to his storm metaphors from the opening lines. I certainly hope that as we work to solve the current problems we face that Obama remembers these words because the future of our children’s children is most certainly in jeopardy.