Obama's awful inaugural speech
Can we talk?
A lot of stuff is over now: the "death march" primaries, the Bush presidency, and the wait for Obama to start the gig in earnest.
So... can we now start telling the truth about President Obama?
What is that truth? I'm not sure. He hasn't had the job for very long, has he?
As that truth unveils itself, may we speak it? At long last, is one finally allowed to say no to ponyism without being called a bugf--ker?
Look, it's practically mandated by law that we're hopeful, and by golly I'm hopeful.
But the first inconvenient truth of the Obama presidency is that his inauguration speech was a lemon.
How important is a speech? Oration is constantly declared to be Obama's strong suit, and a sarcastic "just words" was one of the favorite and most outraged defenses from the Axelrod camp.
And this wasn't just any occasion, it was the most important day in American history, given what was said about his mere nomination:
“What Barack Obama has accomplished is the single most extraordinary event that has occurred in the 232 years of the nation’s political history.... The event itself is so extraordinary that another chapter could be added to the Bible to chronicle its significance." -- Jesse Jackson, Jr.
The rewards of a color-bar breaking milestone and seeing Bush and Cheney go packing duly noted, few would deny at this point that there's a lot at stake as Obama sets up shop in the Oval Office.
On almost every front, real — and positive — change is needed. And today's Executive Branch is exceptionally powerful, relative to the two or three other branches of federal governance.
So, what did Obama serve us on this historically historic occasion, as a nation turned its lonely eyes to him?
Let's take a look, scoring it as follows:
+5: A great statement
+1: A good statement
+.01: Positive, but very easy
0: Pleasantries ("my fellow citizens"), platitudes ("this great nation is gonna do it"), and things everybody knows ("the economy is bad")
-.01: A quibble
-1: A bad statement, or a statement that might have been good if it weren't blatantly hypocritical
-5: A terrible statement
Following is how I scored it. YMMV.
My fellow citizens:
I stand here today humbled by the task before us (-.01: After being given millions of dollars and praise beyond measure to become "the most powerful man in the world" in a time of crisis — no, crises — you're playing humble?), 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 (-1: Other than the nation-rape, how did you like the Bush presidency? Service like that doesn't deserve a tip. Nor a get-out-of-investigations-free card.), as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.
Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath (-.01: Actually, it was 43. Yes, we call Obama the "44th President," because he's starting the 44th presidency, but still....). 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 forebearers, and true to our founding documents. (-1: One word — FISA)
So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.
That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred (-5: Leading with War on Terra framing! Ugh!). Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some (-1: I'd be with you if you didn't whip for TARP), but also our collective failure to make hard choices (-1: What hard choices did you make in the Senate and on the campaign trail?) and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost (-1: I'd be with you if you'd stood up for HOLC); jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly (-5: "Too costly" = "Uniquely American solution" = "No single-payer"); our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet (-1: I'd be with you for five points if you weren't playing footsie with Big Ethanol, "clean coal," and nukesters).
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. (+1: Malaise framing — not near as gutsy as doing it when evaluating your own presidency, but a useful springboard for aspirational leadership, if you subsequently proffer an agenda that makes good use of it. OTOH, it could instead be used as a springboard for noxious policies, but we'll look on the bright side, this being your first day and all.)
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.
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear (+5: Good, GOP = fear), unity of purpose over conflict and discord (-5: The bipartisan delusion and Happy Valley STFU. We have chosen to kick out the Republicans. Don't ask me to apologize for being antagonistic to their values and methods, nor to prize "unity" over truth and fighting for what's right).
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. (-5: Turning the partisan "food fight" bullshit up to eleven, belittling the efforts of progressives as "petty grievances," and reinforcing the idea that to investigate the Bushies would be "recriminations.")
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things (-1: Here's a childish thing to put away: belief in sky-gods!). The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history (-.01: What do you mean "choose our better history"? Shouldn't we look honestly at our whole history, including the recent history of rampant criminality in the Executive Branch?); to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise (-1: There probably is no god. Unfortunately, there may not be separation of church and state, either.) that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. (+1: A platitude, sure, but a statement against American exceptionalism is a healthy move) Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. (-.01: Sure it has. Is that exceptionalism creeping back in? C'mon, we've deferred all kinds of justice for long swaths of time because it wasn't important enough to us.) It has not been the path for the fainthearted -- 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 toward prosperity and freedom.
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; (-.01: For us, they committed genocide against the Injuns!) 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 Sahn. (-.01: As Michael J. Smith put it, "People with longish memories were perhaps surprised to hear that American troops at Khe Sanh were, in some unspecified way, defending our liberties.")
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. (-.01: Do you really think those on the business end of the whip perceived America this way, or that they should have?)
This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous (-.01: Are we?), 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. (-1: Your TARP is showing again) Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.
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. (+1: New Deal-y goodness) We will restore science to its rightful place (+1: Geeky goodness), and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost (-1: Another nail in single-payer). We will harness the sun and the winds (+1: Green goodness) and the soil (-1: See above re: ethanol, etc.) 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. And all this we will do.
Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions -- who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. (-1: You've got it backwards. Your ambitions may be too small. See Krugman.) 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. (-1: There you go again, blaming "cynics," as opposed to blaming authoritarian corporatist crooks. Cynics wouldn't have said something as ill-considered as this: "there are a whole host of areas where Republicans in some cases may have a better idea," such as "on issues of regulation."). The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works (-1: Sorry, not good enough. This is the time to blast the GOP's government-is-evil values out of the water, not for feeding post-partisan memes about "non-ideological" "pragmatism") -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford (-1: Is burying UHC the #1 goal of this speech?), a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. (-1: As appropriate, programs can be fixed, rather than ended. You've been baselessly signaling that Social Security isn't working right. Are you going to end that program, or just chisel it down?). And 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. (-1: Just going to keep rubbin' salt into that TARP wound, aren't ya?)
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 (+.01: Oversight is good; would have been a full point if you'd made it clear that, without certain controls, the market can be a force against freedom, and that economic growth is not the only indicator of market virtue or failure) -- and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. (-.01: "Favors 'only' the prosperous? Why should it favor the prosperous at all?) 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. (-1: Is "charity" too liberal a construct for you?)
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.(+1: Good... now, let's see you take action against the architects of Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, etc.) Our Founding 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 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. (+1: You had me worried with that "ready to lead" stuff. So, are you going to use restraint in your Middle East policy? We'll give you the point today. Are you going to earn it?)
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 (+1: A generous point given here, because it's a sure bet that "responsibly" is going to be a loophole of epic proportions), and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan (-1: Na ga happen. Afghanistan is where empires go to die. Cut and run, baby!) With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat (-1: Sounds good, but this is a gateway drug for bombing Iran, which will mean even more blood on our hands, and which will make nobody any safer), and roll back the specter of a warming planet (+1: Another plug for climate-change issues. Good.). We will not apologize for our way of life (-1: Really, Barack? Don't we have at least a little 'splaining to do?) , nor will we waver in its defense (-1: Given that most of our "defense" in recent years has been unjustified offense, maybe we should waver a little), 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. (-1: I despise terrorism, but talking about it like it's something that can be defeated in battle is madness, the kind that leads to brainless and heartless policies)
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 nonbelievers. (-1: Tossing in "nonbelievers" as an extra-bonus part of humanity don't impress me much. I know some atheists are ecstatic about this crumb of recognition, but after a benediction, an invocation from a gay/women/science/atheist-hating asshole, a quote from scripture, malarkey about God-given rights, and a campaign with countless sops to Bible-thumpers, that small dignification reads much more like an indignity.) 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.
To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. (+1: Good to make an explicit shout-out to a group we've been particularly abusive to, though I do hope this doesn't manifest itself in undue respect for anybody's or everbody's religious delusions, theocracies, etc.) 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. (-.01: Though some anti-Western sentiments are of less-than-full merit, some are royally — rather, imperially — earned) To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent (-1: Did you notice how dissent against your primary campaign was silenced, along with any skepticism after your election? Did you care?) 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.
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. (+1: Ooh, charity!) And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty (-1: The poor in America just don't exist in our modern politics, do they?), we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. (+1: Admission of American excess. That's a bit of a rhetorical change since the last guy.) 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 today, 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. (-5: Sacred-soldier platitudes without acknowledging how disgustingly we're misusing them and our weaponry means more and more people die and kill in vain.)
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. (-1: Levees? You're really going to go there? Government is exactly who needs to step up when levees are at risk or compromised. I don't know whether your rumored "community service" programs will be a healthy development or conscription and yet another shifting of burdens onto lower-status Americans, but whatever these calls-to-service are ultimately about, stop triangulating with GOP-libertarian impotent-government framing! )
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 (-.01: If it would've kept you from playing hack cards like that, maybe you should have had Jon Favreau help you grope for the right words) -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves (-.01: To ourselves? Are we lacking in that department?), 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. (-.01: I don't gladly seize dealing with the smoldering wreck that political malfeasance and neglect have left us. There's plenty more to life than fighting the sins of valueless politicos, but y'all have been leaving us little choice.)
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. (-1: What do you mean "knowledge" about God? I guess you could say we're getting "known" in the Biblical sense.)
This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed -- why men and women and children of every race and every faith (-1: Oops, the "faithless" just fell of the radar again) can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath. (+1: That's the instant pay-off: first black president. Good. Now, let's hope that you're a good president.)
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]."
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, (-.01: Shouldn't we be turning back some things?) nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us (-1: Jesus, back with the God stuff!), we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
Not too much different than what one might have expected a year ago.
Well, here's my tally:
+5: 1 (total: 5.00)
+1: 13 (total: 13.00)
+.01: 1 (total: 0.01)
-.01: 14 (total: -0.14)
- 1: 30 (total: -30)
-5: 5 (total: -25)
Grand total: -37.13. Yes, it's just one speech. But not a good one.
How did you score it?
I do think speeches matter. They prepare public opinion for policy. Still, I'll be happy if some or all of Obama's speeches are lame, if his policy turns out to be good.
It's a marathon, not a sprint, as they say. But it will be a much better term if we're honest about what's good and bad in Obama's policies and rhetoric.
Such honesty was in short supply during his run to the White House. Any chance it could start... now?