Commentary Magazine


Previewing the Inaugural Address

George Packer, writing in the New Yorker, warns that President Obama’s upcoming inaugural address may be “a bit of a snooze.” He says most inaugural addresses are. Obama “isn’t a phrasemaker,” because he is “too complex, too nuanced, too elusive, and too careful, for words that stick.” Packer doubts that even the “signature phrase” from Obama’s first inaugural address–“a new era of responsibility”–will “enter the ages.” About that, he is undoubtedly right.

Packer notes, however, that Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, JFK, Reagan, and Bush 43 all gave inaugural addresses that included memorable phrases. Since it seems unlikely that all those presidents were significantly less complex, nuanced, elusive, and careful than Obama, we need an alternate theory to explain the point of Packer’s piece. Let’s review what he wrote about Obama’s first inaugural address, which is somewhat different from what one might expect, given Packer’s current comments.

On January 20, 2009, Packer wrote that Obama’s address had “echoes of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.” Its “tone and vision” had been “absolutely equal to the occasion and the times.” The “most eloquent words” were addressed to the entire world: “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.” The most “passionately delivered” lines began: “We will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waiver in its defense.” In short, Obama “delivered something better than rhetorical excitement”–he had spoken “the truth,” which “carries its own poetry,” and he had made “impossible” the job of the poet following him that day.

Four years later, Packer remembers only a single phrase–the not-for-the-ages “new era of responsibility”–and cautions that the history of inaugural addresses suggests Obama’s one Monday may slightly bore us. What’s going on here?

It is not that Obama cannot come up with words that stick. Consider just a few: exceptional like Greece is exceptional; punished with a baby; typical white person; at a certain point you’ve made enough money; shovel-ready jobs that weren’t shovel-ready; pivoting to jobs; the stupidly-acting Cambridge police; we can’t eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees and just expect other countries to say OK; I don’t want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking; I have a gift, Harry; this time, you’ve got me; they should be thanking me; if you like your plan, you can keep it; Slurpee-sipping opponents; that business of yours, you didn’t build that; say that louder, Candy; I am a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. Few presidents have had so many sticky words.   

In the last paragraph of his current piece, Packer expresses his hope that Obama will surprise us with an address Monday that “treats us like his intellectual equals” (a challenge perhaps even greater than the one given the poet last time) with “vivid prose.” It is as if Packer believes the complex, nuanced, elusive, careful Obama is capable of a speech with echoes of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, but does not want readers setting the bar very high. Call it the soft sycophancy of lowering expectations.