Fine Speech for an Extraordinary Historical Moment

January 22, 2009

On March 4, 1865, just as Abraham Lincoln began to deliver his second inaugural address to a country soon to emerge from civil war, the sun broke through the clouds and bathed the scene with light.

There was no such obvious indication of heavenly approval during Barack Obama’s inaugural address yesterday. But earlier in the morning, long before he took the oath of office with one hand on Lincoln’s Bible, an eagle was spotted swooping in front of the Capitol.

The address Obama delivered from that podium was strong. It was a very fine speech without, perhaps, being one for the ages. It was not as striking as Obama’s address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and it was not the equal of Kennedy’s inaugural, nor Lincoln’s. Obama admitted last week that “there’s a genius to Lincoln that is not going to be matched”.

Yet these are hard benchmarks, even for a writer and speaker as gifted as Obama. Certainly, his inaugural address was much better than most. Perhaps he pulled back deliberately and kept it low-key for fear of widening the gap between the expectations for his presidency and the challenges before it. If so, then he has confirmed his emerging reputation for prudence.

The foreign policy section of the address was specific and, notwithstanding the centrism of Obama’s appointees to key foreign policy positions, entirely consistent with the liberalism of his campaign rhetoric. He directly addressed “all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born”. He showed he understands that America’s power derives not just from her military might but also from her “sturdy alliances and enduring convictions”.

Obama promised to temper that power with “humility and restraint” – in contrast with George Bush, who announced at his second inauguration four years ago that his goal was to end tyranny.

Regarding the two conflicts in which the US is engaged, Obama promised to “begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan”. He signalled a determination to press ahead on two of the Rudd Government’s signature issues, vowing to “work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat and roll back the spectre of a warming planet”.

Perhaps the best line of the speech was an affirmation of his campaign pledge to engage US adversaries: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

If the speech was good, though, the historical moment was extraordinary. Obama has made it his practice not to explicitly refer to his race. But yesterday he asked Americans to “mark this day in remembrance of who we are and how far we have travelled”. He noted that “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath”.

The inauguration of an African American as President is another instance of the US defying the naysayers.

Barack Obama’s speech will linger in my memory – but not as much as the making of it.