As a former presidential speechwriter, I have been asked over and over in interviews how I would grade President Barack Obama’s inaugural address. My answer: solid A. Not A plus, like Jefferson’s first inaugural or both of Lincoln’s or Franklin Roosevelt’s first or JFK’s or Reagan’s first—but a solid A nonetheless.
Like most incoming presidents before him, he invoked American ideals and the American experience as part of a call for a new American unity. But naturally and, of course, with unique ability, he wove the African-American experience into the American saga, supporting this message of national decency and destiny.
Similarly, like presidents before him, he surveyed the state of the nation and world and laid out in broad terms his immediate goals. But again, unique to him, in the foreign policy section of the speech, he gave unusual attention to the people, not just the regimes, of the developing world. He suggested that clean water, farm prices, and education in the developing world are national security issues, explaining, undoubtedly correctly, “for the world has changed, and we must change with it.”
Finally, like most modern presidents, he affirmed his faith in the ability of the American people to meet the nation’s challenges and the duty of all Americans to work so that future generations would say, “We carried forth that great gift of freedom.” But again uniquely, he could point to the civil rights movement and his new presidency as a sign that the nation has within it the strength of character to succeed in that mission.
Some have found in the speech a severe criticism of the outgoing administration. If determined partisans want to hear it that way, they will. But to my ear, his hits on the Bush years were mild, hedged, and would, if I were very liberal, have left me worried.
Would President Obama pull our troops from Iraq? Yes, but instead of starting in the 60 days he pledged during at least one stage of his campaign, he would leave “responsibly.” That could mean that he will embrace the same timetable for withdrawal as is now in place—indeed, it almost surely does. What was his bottom line toward the “far-reaching network of violence and hatred” with which we are “at war”? It was “we will defeat you.”
He implied a new emphasis on diplomacy (“we are ready to lead once more”), but that new emphasis has been in place for the past four years. The period of Bush unilateralism lasted only about 24 months, the second half of his first term.
On the economy, he praised the market, saying “its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched,” though it should be regulated where regulation is needed. This, too, is a Bush position. And he celebrated “the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things,” a trio emphasizing entrepreneurship that could have been lifted from speeches I wrote for Ronald Reagan all those years ago. Any acknowledgment of the central role of entrepreneurs in driving economic growth leads inevitably to arguments for lower taxes and relaxed regulation.
In key respects, then, the continuity that the address suggested between the Obama and Bush administrations was more remarkable than the breaks. All new presidents look to depart from the past. President Obama talked about such departures in multiple areas during his campaign. Now that he is preparing to govern, it looks as though many of those departures may not be as pronounced as originally advertised.
So here is where I come down: As a piece of writing, the speech was very strong—not Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” or Kennedy’s “Ask not . . . “—but clear, eloquent, and moving. For its approach to policy, it reinforced the growing impression in Washington that Obama’s will be a centrist administration. As history, the speech marvelously marked a great moment—the inauguration of our first African-American president.