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Writers Mull Clues from Obama's 1st Inaugural Address

State of the Union speeches are too often glorified laundry lists, topped off with sober warnings and peppered with soaring riffs of inspiration. The best of them offer a coherent vision, JFK's inaugural address being a frequently-cited example. Obama's first inaugural address, however, breaks the mold a little, according to the interpretation of various columnists and writers

Peggy Noonan's column, "Meet President Obama" in today's Wall St. Journal, for example, says Obama "used language with which traditional Republicans would be thoroughly at home." Noonan called it "Low-key and sober" and "not an especially-rousing speech." But she adds "This is not all bad. When a speech is so calm and cool that you have to read it to absorb it fully, the speech just may get read."

This was not the sound of candidate Barack Obama but President Obama, not the sound of the man who appealed to the left wing of his party but one attempting to appeal to the center of the nation. It was not a joyous, audacious document, not a call to arms, but a reasoned statement by a Young Sobersides.

Noonan's most interesting observation is the contrast between Reagan, Clinton and Obama on the role of government: Reagan's "government is not the answer, government is the problem," Bill Clinton's statement that the "the era of big government is over" vs. Obama's "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."

Noonan spins this as further evidence of Obama's centrism. I'd say it was a convincing and long-overdue knell for the era of knee-jerk government-bashing. As Harold Meyerson put it in his WaPo column,

We measure the merit of government, he added, not by how wide a berth it gives the market but by "whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified."... With those words, the age of Reagan was ceremoniously but unambiguously interred. For 30 years, the widely shared prosperity created and then enjoyed by the Greatest Generation has been eroding. Obama's speech was the first presidential inaugural to address the narrowing of American prosperity and to announce the intention to broaden it again.

In his contribution to a New York Times round-up of various presidential speechwriters' analysis of Obama's address, another Republican, William Safire expresses a view similar to Noonan, calling Obama's address "solid, respectable, uplifting, suitably short, superbly delivered" and generally themeless, but it "fell short of the anticipated immortality." In the same round-up Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol called it "a display of strength (his) and a summoning of strength (ours)" and saw a clear strategy emerge from the address: "He long ago proved that he could make people weep. Today he seemed determined to make them think and, more important, to act."

WaPo's George Will also detected in his column a note of "cultural traditionalism" and a "theme of responsibility" in Obama's inaugural address, but Will is more worried than Republican colleagues Noonan and safire about the return of Big Government:

...More than any predecessor except the first, the 44th president enters office with the scope of its powers barely circumscribed by law, and even less by public opinion...Obama's unprecedented power derives from the astonishing events of the past four months that have made indistinct the line between public and private sectors. Neither the public as currently alarmed, nor Congress as currently constituted, nor the Constitution as currently construed is an impediment to hitherto unimagined executive discretion in allocating vast portions of the nation's wealth.

The L.A. Times' Susan Salter Reynolds had one of the more interesting round-up articles, featuring short comments by a dozen writers on Obama's address, including this from author Ron Calrson:

What courage to use a complex sentence talking to a million people! By expecting the best of us, he just might get it.

And memoirist Patricia Hampl had this to say about Obama's choice of words:

I was glad, that he denied himself rhetorical flourishes and gave a speech as refined and restrained in its power so that political language itself was restored to its greatest value -- saying what the speaker means.

The American Prospect's Mark Schmitt's "A Farewell to Words" explains Obama's oration as part of a deliberate shift from the rhetoric of inspiration to the unveiling of a practical agenda:

And yet, the president has moved on. Through the course of the campaign, his words slowly came down to earth, from inspiring and cocky to the mundane and practical. As the "gathering clouds" of the economic crisis became too dark to ignore, he accelerated his move from inspiration to work. His words no longer serve the purpose of pulling us up but of naming and giving order to the work to be done: roads, the electric grid, ending torture, restoring America's place in the world.

I would say that Obama's first presidential address was more moderate in style than in the substance of reforms he is advocating --- which indicate a very sharp and most welcome departure from the failed policies of his predecessor. President Obama is clearly preparing the nation for a rocky ride in the months ahead, and laying the groundwork for an ambitious reform agenda to return America to peace and prosperity.