Why Obama's Inauguration Speech Was Far More Brilliant Than 2009


"Are you going to the inauguration?" It's not an uncommon question to hear in Washington, D.C., especially when you're on the Metro in the wee hours of the morning with seemingly no other reason to be there. "Yes," I responded. "That's where I'm heading."

"Really? As a spectator?" Maybe I exuded an air of professionalism in spite of myself. "No," I replied, pulling out my press pass, "I'm one of the bad guys."

Being a bad guy can get you pretty far these days. During Barack Obama's first inauguration in January 2009, I was just a spectator. My friend Max and I had made the trek from the storm-drenched streets of Manhattan to the slushy mud outside the Washington Monument. We had joined hundreds of thousands of yawning, sniffling, and shivering Americans, packed elbow-to-elbow on a bitter winter day so they could chip off a tiny fragment from this piece of history, stuff it in some mental pocket, and forever claim it as their own. We were celebrating the moment when the reins of national leadership passed to a man who had inspired a generation of young liberals in a manner not seen since the candidacy of Robert Kennedy. We were witnessing the final hours of the presidency of George W. Bush, who embodied the anti-intellectualism, religious bigotry, international bellicosity, and economic elitism liberals detest most in modern conservatism. We were sharing in that precious moment when the term "America's first black president" made the transition from rarefied hypothetical to historical fact. We were THERE.

As Obama delivers his second inaugural, I am reminded of this again. His first inaugural address was a surprisingly lackluster slab of oratory, mechanically alternating between promises and platitudes without achieving the magnificent sagacity of Thomas Jefferson's first, the inspiring doggedness of Franklin Roosevelt's first, or the artful eloquence of John Kennedy's first (and, alas, only). It had been a competent, but thoroughly forgettable speech – and yet that crowd had listened with rapt attention. Countless men, women, and children soaked up each word silently, motionless, with not one extraneous sound interfering with the resounding clarity of his language. They had waited until the last syllable had been uttered, cheered cacophonously, and then still lingered, waiting until the dreadful post-inaugural poem of Elizabeth Alexander finally compelled the hundreds of thousands to leave en masse.

Now the crowd begins to peel away as soon as Supreme Court Judge John Roberts finishes administering the oath of office (mercifully free from the gaffes committed by both president-elect and chief justice last time). Of those who remain, maybe half pay attention, and even many of those do so more out of civility than genuine interest. The rest of the crowd mills about, chatting with each other, murmuring to themselves, and packing up their belongings. This speech is far superior to its predecessor, but you would never guess it from the crowd's response.

"Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional, what makes us American, is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

"'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.'

"Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed."

These are simple observations, but wise ones. Yet few in the crowd even notice their import. Indeed, I had seen more attentiveness from a much smaller audience in Philadelphia less than 24 hours earlier, where maybe a hundred or so people had casually strolled into Congress Hall – a small building in the Independence Hall complex where Congress convened from 1790 to 1800 – to watch a reenactment of John Adams's inauguration. America's second president had just won our nation's first real presidential election; since the first two contests (in 1789 and 1792) had seen George Washington win without opposition, the 1796 bout between Jefferson and Adams had broken ground by simple virtue of being a presidential election that actually decided who would become our next president. Adams realized this, and in the speech he delivered to the cozy main chamber of Congress Hall, he had declared:

"There may be little solidity in an ancient idea that congregations of men into cities and nations are the most pleasing objects in the sight of superior intelligences, but this is very certain, that to a benevolent human mind there can be no spectacle presented by any nation more pleasing, more noble, majestic, or august, than an assembly like that which has so often been seen in this and the other Chamber of Congress, of a Government in which the Executive authority, as well as that of all the branches of the Legislature, are exercised by citizens selected at regular periods by their neighbors to make and execute laws for the general good."

As I heard re-enactor Steve Medeiros deliver those words, I was seated in the spot once occupied by James Madison – father of our Constitution, author of the best Federalist Papers, fourth president of the United States – when he had been a legislator in this body. On the executive office to which Obama was now being sworn into for a second term, he had written:

"Experience has proved a tendency in our governments to throw all power into the Legislative vortex. The Executives of the States are in general little more than Cyphers; the legislatures omnipotent. If no effectual check be devised for restraining the instability and encroachments of the latter, a revolution of some kind or other would be inevitable."

Obama has long been at war with the legislative branch that history has assigned to him, and the law school professor no doubt has Madison somewhere in his mind as he says:

"For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today's victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall."

These are sinewy thoughts and substantial arguments, updating the ideas of Adams and Madison on how a democrat (small 'd') should lead in America, and much better than the fare offered up in most inaugural addresses. But they are lost on this crowd, even as the mediocre rhetoric from four years earlier had been lapped up.

This isn't because Obama has been a bad president. Despite the vitriol of the right and the disenchantment of the left, he has actually been quite good at the job. History will remember him as the leader who prevented a second Great Depression, guided us through the Great Recession, passed the first meaningful health care reform in nearly 50 years, ended the war in Iraq, oversaw the assassination of Osama bin Laden, and began the process of undoing the disastrous financial industry deregulations that had wreaked havoc on our economy. If his supporters had merely voted for a president, few would have had reason to feel a lack of spirits today.

But they hadn't elected a president in 2008. They had elected a superhero, a Roman god who like Jupiter would toss lightning bolts from an Olympian White House to smite the plutocrats, bigots, and useful idiots to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Becoming president was the worst thing that could have happened to a mere mortal who was mistaken for being something more, as no job in the world is better tailored to expose one's humanity – which, upon further inspection, reveals all of us to be far closer to Janus, the Roman god of new beginnings. He had two faces.

Note: The author would like to thank Cady McClain for her original artwork.