The full text of the speech can found here. There were rising tides (despite his famed powers at stemming them), still waters of peace, gathering clouds, and raging storms all within the first two sentences of the first full paragraph. I’m inclined to say that this is a bit much for an opener . . . rather like a spoof of an inaugural than an actual inaugural. But I suppose such "cynicism" makes me unpopular today. Whatever. That much of it was sappy and it deserves to be called out as such; so--if no one else is--I’m happy to oblige.
Sappiness aside, Obama did have a serious purpose in view and, following those sad and sappy lines, he set to work at fulfilling it. He was there to sell his view of America--understanding, as all successful Presidents do, that the campaign to get elected must not end but, rather, transform itself into a campaign for his ideas. The work and the purpose of this speech can be found in this excerpt:
Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. [Emphasis added]And this one:
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. [Emphasis added again].This is key:
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.And so is this:
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. [Emphasis mine again].
And those of us who manage the public’s knowledge 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.And this:
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. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.The build up to this address touted Obama’s abilities to transcend partisanship. And, in a certain sense he does. He does it, however, not by holding hands and singing Kumbaya with John McCain at a dinner last night. Rather, he transcends it by reducing the argument of his opposition to irrelevancy. Partisanship as it has been understood in the last several years is a childish thing, he asserts, not because of the vitriol leveled at Bush and the Republicans (and in some cases, too eagerly returned) but because it was foolish, to Obama’s way of thinking, for his side to bother engaging with such substandard thought. History has passed Bush and his supporters by (the ground moved under their feet, remember) so to remain there fighting with them is pointless. America is for the doers . . . so he will do. He will be the embodiment of "move on." He will stop the argument by winning it--as Charles Kesler so ably demonstrated in his analysis of Obama just before the election.
In understanding what Obama intends, we should not neglect to take note of his claim that we will "restore science to her rightful place" because Science, it seems, is understood by Obama to be the final arbiter in determining what is "childish" and what is yet still debatable and worthy in an argument. He appeals to us to be faithful to our forbears and our founding documents and especially to "the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness." But the use of "promise" is curious in this context. Jefferson called it a self-evident truth that we were so created--our equality is a fact, our duty is to recognize it. Lincoln famously called it a "proposition," i.e., it was something we had not quite lived up to recognizing at that point. In 1861, our laws claimed to support liberty because of our equality but, in fact, denied liberty to millions and, thereby, denied equality. But to now call equality not a fact demanding more than mere recognition from the law but a promise given to us by God and demanding action is something new, I think. Does he understand himself as having been chosen to fulfill God’s promise? And did God ever really make such a promise to be delivered on this earth? This seems to be a different kind of equality and it seems to demand something more than legal acknowledgment . . . it demands action and transformation and, indeed, transfiguration. "For everywhere we look, there is work to be done."
Obama began his inaugural address by noting that he is "humbled" by the work in front of him and the nation. But it will not be humility that characterizes his approach to government and governing . . . how could it be? He wrote a book about "Audacity" and he means to stick to that text, anyway.