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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

For Obama, More Prose Than Poetry In Second Inaugural

For Obama, More Prose Than Poetry In Second Inaugural

by Richard Tofel, ProPublica

As we did four years ago, we asked Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s president and author of a book on President Kennedy’s inaugural address, to provide instant analysis of today’s speech. Here are his thoughts:

In 2009, in the flush of his first election, Barack Obama declared in his inaugural address that, “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.” Today, perhaps chastened by the trials of governing and the difficulty of gaining election a second time, he did not so much acknowledge that the cynics of 2009 had been right as devote himself to trying, one more time, to move the ground beneath them.

The critical portion of the address seemed to be this: “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time… We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” Whether such a call, even with the president’s present strength and confidence, will shift the ground will be the great question of the next period in our politics and history.

The speech centered on the two fundamental American texts, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Obama quoted the heart of Jefferson’s Declaration verbatim, and then turned repeatedly, as his organizing rhetorical device, to the opening words of the Constitution: “We, the People.” By the speech’s end, seeking a call to action and perhaps a counterweight to the polarization of Washington, “we, the people” became “you and I, as citizens.”

Along the way, in addition to drawing on the words of Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr., Obama managed to reference Lincoln four times in two paragraphs, adverting to the Gettysburg Address (“government of, and by, and for the people”), Lincoln’s second inaugural (“blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword”), the “House Divided” speech (“no union…could survive half-slave and half-free”) and Lincoln’s second message to Congress (“made ourselves anew”). The one source not quoted in the speech, in a striking departure from inaugural tradition, seems to have been the Bible.

Indeed, the speech overall was more prosaic than most inaugurals. It was somewhat surprising, in this context, to hear a defense of entitlements, a disquisition on climate change, and calls for immigration reform and an end to voter suppression legislation. In all of this, Obama’s model may have been Franklin Roosevelt’s 1937 second inaugural — the first such address delivered in January — which was a clarion call for liberal politics and an attempt to cast it in the American mainstream. Sixteen days later FDR over-reached with his Court-packing plan, and his influence in domestic affairs began to ebb.

All of this reminds us that second inaugurals are harder. The lofty hopes of office-taking must give way to the sober experience of office-holding. Nearly all of the immortal words of addresses past come from first inaugurals: Jefferson’s “We are all Republicans, We are all Federalists;” Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory;” FDR’s “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself;” Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Only Lincoln’s second inaugural — “with malice toward none” — lives on in the same way.

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7 responses to “For Obama, More Prose Than Poetry In Second Inaugural”

  1. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What our President proposed is likely to be unacceptable to the Republican controlled House of Representatives, who remain convinced that the way forward is austerity, at a time when our economy and well being are in desperate need of investment by both the public and private sectors.
    We need to invest in infrastructure, modernization, R&D, education, energy independence, and preparing for the effects of global warming. In addition to improving our ability to compete effectively with European countries, China, Japan and other industrialized nations, it would help us overcome the effects of global warming – call it climate change if that’s less offensive – before it becomes a crisis and we end up spending trillions of dollars to save our coastal cities and overcome the effect of prolonged droughts, loss of arable land, and shortages of potable water.
    We must shift our priorities from ridiculous medieval crusades to improvements at home, where they are desperately needed if our goal is to preserve and expand our privileged position in the world.

    • If WE Stand Up And Let Our Voices Be Heard What Our President Wants For This Country Can Be Done !! Even If We Have To Wait Till 2014 Where We Can Start Getting Even More GOP/Tea Party Members Out Of Office!! We Must Make This A United Front VOTE THEM OUT OF OFFICE 2014 And Beyond!!!

      • onedonewong says:

        Sorry barak has no intention of having people speak out that’s why he has his domestic rendition where he can imprison anyone with out a reason for as long as he wants

    • onedonewong says:

      Its the same way Forward that Chairman Mao alays talked about

  2. MARK says:

    Hope springs eternal.The work of bringing it into bloom begins with you and me and seeing to it that our elected officials do the job that we intend for them to do.And if they do not then we will go to work again to remove them until we have those in office who realize that thier position is so much more than a road to riches.

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