The Buzz

Inaugurations and Speaking to History

Over at the New Yorker, George Packer looks forward to President Obama’s second inaugural address next Monday. He observes that “great political speechmaking depends on turns of phrase joined to profound ideas that answer the pressures of a historical moment.” Today’s moment, he says, with the government stagnant and a number of issues competing for attention, “comes at an inauspicious moment for political rhetoric.” This “suggests that next week’s speech will be a bit of a snooze.”

Nevertheless, Packer hopes that the president will aim big:

I hope that Obama the writer finds some vivid prose for the occasion; that Obama the thinker treats us like his intellectual equals, as he did in Philadelphia and Oslo; and that Obama the man allows himself the risk of deep feeling, as he did in Tucson and Newtown. Most of all, I hope Obama the politician is willing to say things that some people might not want to hear.

But as Packer hints at, it’s not just the historical record that points toward a “snooze”—it’s Obama’s personal style as well. Obama has often been at his best when grappling with big issues, as in his 2008 campaign speech on race in Philadelphia and his Nobel speech in Oslo. An inaugural address, by contrast, does not lend itself to the kind of critical, long-form examination of a specific theme like the problems of race in America or the question of when war is justified.

Moreover, attempting to be too bold in identifying and interpreting the historical moment can sometimes backfire. Recall that our previous president, George W. Bush, used his second inaugural address as an aggressive articulation and defense of the global “freedom agenda.” In a statement that historian John Gaddis argues represents the purest statement of a “Bush Doctrine,” he declared:

It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

Bush went on to say that advancing this goal “is not primarily the task of arms.” But as we now know, a decision that he had already made—to promote this goal through armed regime change in Iraq—would ensure that his second term would be overshadowed by that country’s downward spiral into chaos. The result was that Bush’s gauzy rhetoric about freedom and democracy would ring hollow to many in America and around the world.

So will Obama speak to history and grand themes on Monday? It’s possible. But if he doesn’t, if he plays it safe and gives a mostly forgettable speech, no one should be all that surprised or disappointed. Indeed, as Michael Kazin points out, those presidents who have given the most celebrated inaugural addresses have generally contradicted their words with their subsequent actions anyway.