Commentary Magazine


Maybe It Was Just a Bad Speech

Charles Krauthamer was certainly underwhelmed by the Inaugural Speech:

Fascinating speech. It was so rhetorically flat, so lacking in rhythm and cadence, one almost has to believe he did it on purpose. Best not to dazzle on Opening Day. Otherwise, they’ll expect magic all the time.
.   .    .
The language lacked lyricism. The content had neither arc nor theme: no narrative trajectory like Lincoln’s second inaugural; no central idea, as was (to take a lesser example) universal freedom in Bush’s second inaugural.

This is odd because Obama is so clearly capable of more. But he decisively left behind the candidate who made audiences swoon and the impressionable faint. And that left the million-plus on the Mall, while unshakably euphoric about the moment, let down and puzzled by the speech. He’d given them nothing to cheer or chant, nothing to sing. Candidate Obama had promised the moon. In soaring cadences, he described a world laid waste by Bush, a world that President Obama would redeem — bringing boundless hope and universal health, receding oceans and a healing planet.

But now that Obama was president, the redeemer was withholding, the tone newly sober, even dour. The world was still in Bushian ruin, marked by “fear . . . conflict . . . discord . . . petty grievances and false promises . . . recriminations and worn-out dogmas.” But no more the prospect of magical restoration. In a stunning exercise in lowered expectations, Obama offered not quite blood, sweat and tears, but responsibility, work, sacrifice and service.

Krauthammer is mesmerized by the mediocrity, convinced there is a brilliant scheme or some emotional “withholding” going on. Because a speech so disappointing could have been crafted as such only deliberately, right?

This strikes me as the mellower flip side to how liberals reacted to Karl Rove. Every development in the world, every misstep by President Bush and every odd occurrence was somehow connected by the evil brain of Rove, a sinister and devious mind with superhuman powers. Now conservatives are falling into a similar pattern. It is all a magnificent plot engineered by the greatest politician of our day. A flat speech? Well, it’s part of the Obama Plan. Letting the House concoct a partisan mess of a “stimulus bill”? Part of the Obama Plan. Sending up a fellow with tax-evasion problems on the day he talks about ethics and transparency? Part of the Obama Plan.

Maybe there is an easier explanation: he doesn’t know what he wants to do or how exactly to do it. When you yourself don’t know where you are heading, it’s hard to communicate your direction to others.

You talk a lot of process, you call continuity “change,” and you wait for everyone to exhaust themselves. That’s what candidate Obama did. It’s harder to pull off as President, when you actually have to do things and make choices.

Ronald Reagan reminded us in his farewell address from the White House in January 1989:

And in all of that time I won a nickname, “The Great Communicator.” But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation–from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in principles that have guided us for two centuries.

I suspect that when President Obama figures out the content of his own agenda — what he actually wants to do and how he’s going to get it done –his speeches will improve. Until then, he’s just marking time.

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