Contributing Reporter Nora Caplan-Bricker asked eminent Yale professors Bryan Garsten, Stuart Gottlieb and Charles Hill for their analyses of President Obama’s inaugural speech. They expressed a variety of opinions about the language he used and the themes he highlighted. However, all three were struck by Obama’s emphasis on traditional American values and a continuity with the past.
I thought there was a relatively quiet tone to the speech. It wasn’t the highest inspiring oratory. That makes sense because it fit the moment. The message was, “it’s time to get down to work,” which is not the same tone some of the speeches early in the campaign had.
There was a lot of emphasis on trying to place us in history. He talked about how we are indebted to the past and have obligations to the future, and used examples from the past to show that we can overcome the obstacles we are facing.
My favorite line was when he was talking about the critics who might say that now is not the time for big plans. He said, “Their memories are short.” He was trying to break people out of the present and remind us that we belong to the same history as the founders.
He talked about a “new era of responsibility” and accused us of having put up with unpleasant decisions. That has been unusual in his rhetoric right from the start. It comes from his organizing days, where he learned to provoke the people he was trying to organize.
In what I’ve heard so far today, people have been calling the speech “post-theological” and even “post-political.” When he said “The time has come to set aside childish things,” that was similar to what he has said about the arguing and posturing sides in politics. Many times during the campaign he would dismiss those “childish things” as “silliness.” I think that at heart he’s an organizer, not a politician. It’s almost like he wants to get past politics.
People have been comparing the speech to Kennedy’s address, which emphasized a break with history. Here there’s even more of a break because of the racial element, but he emphasized the break with history less and didn’t make it as stark as Kennedy did.
It has also been compared to FDR’s first inaugural, which steeled people for more rough times. But Roosevelt didn’t have the same strategy of placing up in history. Obama seems to think that people have lost touch with history, which is dangerous because history can be a resource. Much more serious things have been overcome in the past.
Bryan Garsten is an associate professor of political science and the director of undergraduate studies for the Program in Ethics, Politics, and Economics.
He was getting more specific about certain things than is typical for an inaugural address. They usually stay pretty big-picture. He did also have the sort of big-picture ideas that I would say were pretty expected, like the “foundations of America” and the idea that we can get through this time together.
The only really memorable reference to policy was a call to service, calling all Americans to think beyond themselves. It was JFK-esque without the rhetorical flourishes, maybe not as memorable but important.
He didn’t have a Lincoln or a Roosevelt or a Kennedy moment giving us a phrase that will live on, but his message was powerful.
The message was a discussion of American values, which are being challenged in the world right now. He made a big global point about ideologies that are out to destroy us right now, and compared them to the fascism and communism of the past. He tried to say that if we bring out the best in ourselves we can face it.
The problem with this particular speech was that there were so many challenges that it was hard to stay focused on one for too long. A big problem of this address in and of itself was that he really had to manage expectations. He couldn’t overpromise. The speech had to be very careful about specific promises, especially because he has been received as someone who is going to solve all our problems. These problems have been so long in the making, no one president is going to be able to solve all of that in one term.
President Obama isn’t given to hyperbole. Everything about him is very pragmatic; he doesn’t like to overreach. He likes to manage and balance expectations. The speech today was consistent with his personality and his approach throughout the campaign.
Stuart Gottlieb is the director of policy studies at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies and a lecturer in the Political Science Department.
It was the right speech for the moment. It got the message across. The inauguration was a revolutionary moment and he let that speak for itself and did not strain to find high oratory of clever phrases, so there is no one phrase in there that sticks in the mind. The key of a “new era of responsibility” is a very flat and ordinary thing. There’s no poetry in it, and I think that that’s right. If he had tried to go into any high-flown rhetoric it would not have worked because of the time. It was a good speech for the time, and it was a very conservative speech. The message is of responsibility and traditional values.
The main theme was also the main theme of Washington’s farewell address and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech: The thing that matters most is “content of character,” the virtues of the American people. These aren’t new, they’re old. That has a very conservative tone to it. If you look at the list of Obama’s favorite books that the New York Times printed, that is a very conservative list.
One thing that will get no attention in the United States but will be remarked upon around the world is that he doesn’t use the words “freedom” or “democracy” with regard to the world at all. That’s a real change. It’s the same thing he did with his victory speech on Nov. 4. He said, “To those around the world who seek peace and security, we support you.” All around the world the missing words of freedom and democracy made an impact. That’s quite an intellectual change and it will be read in other places as a turn away from an American support for and commitment to the democratization of other countries.
It was unlike any past inauguration because of the size and mood of the crowd and the enormous significance of it with regard to race in America, so it’s incomparable. In a certain sense it’s similar to Reagan’s first inaugural because the 1970s had been a miserable, horrible time and there was a sense of a new day dawning with Reagan, but today had another dimension entirely in the message that America is a truly exceptional place: the first and the only global country open to everybody.
I was struck by the fact that the speech had quite a few clinkers in it. They were minor, not substantive, but it didn’t look like a really good speechwriting eye had gone over it in terms of some of the language and structure. For example, because of the economy we have “gathering clouds and raging storms.” A good editor would have taken that out. They also put the Muslim world in the same paragraph with a line about warmongers and corrupt governments. The speech shouldn’t be structured that way. That’s the speechwriters’ fault, not President Obama’s.
Charles Hill is a distinguished fellow in international security studies. He also teaches history, politics and literature to freshmen enrolled in the Directed Studies program.