Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama's Speech Reviewed by The Guardian (UK)

I was curious to see what the English made of the speech. Here goes:

Michael Tomasky: :
"A presidential inaugural address can be pitched either to the ages, replete with eternal verities, or to the particular moment, cataloguing the challenges of the day, but rarely to both. I think most of us expected the former from Barack Hussein Obama, whose most stirring oratories have certainly sung with ageless poetry. This speech had those moments, to be sure, and Obama from time to time reached back to Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and even to Paul the Apostle. But what was surprising was how rooted in the current moment the speech was."

***

There is precedent for this. Franklin Roosevelt's inaugural addresses, his first and second ones in particular, were pitched directly at the moment Americans faced then. That we are in the midst of an economic crisis greater than any since Roosevelt's time obviously motivated Obama to move his rhetoric in this direction. But I felt he may have pressed a little too far in that direction. When he mentioned "electric grids" and "digital lines," he sounded like he has about a half a beat away from diving into a discussion of the competing merits of corn- versus switchgrass-based ethanol.

Another way in which the speech was geared toward the moment: it was, in parts, a coded but unmistakably clear denunciation of the Bush administration. "As for our common defense," he said, "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." The line drew a big cheer from the nearly two-million-strong Obama enthusiasts on the mall, and they knew exactly what he meant: no more Guantanamos, no more torture, no more Dick Cheney-style governance (and the sight of Cheney in that wheelchair…what was he doing packing his own boxes anyway?). And how about the line about how America's founding fathers "understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please?" Obama may be ready to cooperate with congressional Republicans, as he has often stated, but it has to be said that at least with regard to Bush and Cheney, even Obama's penchant for post-partisanship clearly has its limits.

***

If the speech was mildly underwhelming, I suppose I'd say this. There were many times during the campaign when I, and other political junkies of my acquaintance, thought Obama was screwing something up. A week or a month later, we almost invariably saw that maybe he was right after all. So maybe he thought, let's put the poetry on the shelf. It's time now to get to work. He's got a lot of that ahead of him, so it's understandable I suppose if that, not rhetoric, is what is foremost in his mind.

Obama inauguration: A new tone. No more fake optimism for the people:

This speech marked a sharp line in the sand, breaking overtly with the past administration. That message was clear and intentional. It is a much more confrontational approach than ­inauguration speeches have typically been in America. I am overjoyed.

I thought Obama did three things impressively. Firstly, he sounded a note of our dire circumstances that was in line with a reality that many have been in denial about. That is technically ­brilliant, because he's inheriting a mess, and he's telling people, "We're not going to dig ourselves out of this easily." But also, "Don't blame me for it all."

The second was that he reasserted the primacy of the constitution and the rule of law. With Bush sitting behind him, that was like showtime at the OK Corral. I have written in the past that it is going to take a grassroots movement to support him in reasserting the rule of law, because there are so many vested interests that stand opposed to it. But that was a shot across the bows.

Thirdly, most amazingly, I feel that he dialled down the threat level of the US with just a few sentences. He reached out a hand to the Muslim world. For Obama to say, "I'm not going to demonise you" – that is extraordinarily stabilising.

On top of all that, he gave plenty of red meat to the right, honouring the ­military and their sacrifices. The choice of the conservative, anti gay-marriage pastor Rick Warren to pray sent a message to the conservative base of the opposition that this is going to be a values-based presidency, that he's not going to dismiss the substantial proportion who opposed Democrats not because they disagreed with their economic policies, but because they disagreed with how amoral our policies have often been presented as being. It is not how I would wish for things in an ideal world. But Obama is playing poker brilliantly, because he has handed over something that is not very valuable. And he did all of this without a single partisan sentence. He spoke about Republican policies, but not Republicans. He isn't missing a trick. I thought it was a home run.

***

In fact the great American task is self-scrutiny. Abraham Lincoln gave speeches about the civil war in which he said, in essence, "We've brought this on ourselves by enslaving Americans." Obama's speech was a diagnosis: "We have to take steps to rebuild our nation." I'm not saying, "Hooray, he offered a tough, dark recognition of our reality." I'm saying "Hooray" because he has recognised that the only way to save America is to confront it.

Terry Mancour: Obama didn't seek to soothe but to rouse America to action:

Obama could have basked in the glory of his victory, dwelling at length on the significance of his election. He could have used the occasion to lambast the abuses of the past. He could have used it to call the previous administration to task, or lay out an ideological paradigm that could be used to guide his administration. But those would have been easy, oratorical low-hanging fruit. Instead he gave us a wake-up call, stark and cold, about the dangers ahead. Not to make us fear, but to make us understand the importance of our next tentative steps out of the wilderness. Without diminishing the historic significance of the occasion a single jot, President Obama used the occasion of his inauguration to incite a passionate willingness to sacrifice and build, to willingly suffer, if need be, to build a better future for America and the world.

That's big. Bush fought two wars and lost a whole American city and merely encouraged us to keep on consuming like mad. Never once did he give us a definitive call to action, a cause to work towards as a nation, as a people. We were hungry for that, after 9/11, and left unfulfilled by his false assurances. But the honest truth is we weren't nearly as screwed by 9/11 as we have been with the economic meltdown, and the stakes this time are far greater than the phony "war between civilizations". Obama's focus on the economic and climate change crises, and his prominent address of the energy issues which underlie both, put the focus squarely on the herculean domestic tasks ahead – yet the rallying cry he put forth against our foreign foes was sharp and definitive enough to satisfy the most intransigent Cold Warrior. He didn't need to flatter our vanity with soothing words. He needed to remind us how we've surmounted greater challenges than this in the past, that the blood of heroes and patriots runs through us, and that our power to shape the course of our destinies – as a people and as individuals – has always been there when we needed it.

***

If I had to sum up Obama's laconic but inspiring speech, with all of its poetically dire imagery of gathering storm clouds and rough seas ahead, it would be with an equally stark, completely unpoetic phrase that we, as Americans, desperately needed to hear: "It's time to grow the hell up." And I think we're finally ready. Let's hope so.

And something interesting on the writers of the speech, Barack Obama's inauguration speech ... crafted by 27-year-old in Starbucks:
"Obama is an accomplished writer in his own right, and the process of drafting with his mind reader is collaborative. The inaugural speech has shuttled between them four or five times, following an initial hour-long meeting in which the president-elect spoke about his vision for the address, and Favreau took notes on his computer.

Favreau then went away and spent weeks on research. His team interviewed historians and speech writers, studied periods of crisis, and listened to past inaugural orations. When ready, he took up residence in Starbucks in Washington and wrote the first draft. The end result will be uttered on the steps of the Capitol.

Obama's mind reader has crashed his way through yet another deadline."

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