Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Count the Cliches: President Obama's Inauguration Speech

I'd worked up a sweat to watch Barack Obama become our nation's 44th president. His inauguration, set for 9 am Pacific time, came in the middle of my Tuesday "Bars, Bands and Balls" class at our local gym. Usually that means muscle pumping using 16-lb poles, flat rubber strips, and those giant inflated spheres on which we climb, stretch and tone.

I was eager to hear his speech, to see how high he'd set the bar, how he'd motivate us to band together, and whether he had...any quotable lines that could compare to those of his role model, Abraham Lincoln.

The class moved from our studio into the exercise equipment room, with its mounted televisions, and we continued on our biceps, triceps and abs with our eyes trained on the flat-screens, and our ears straining to absorb each historic word.

First notable: Obama flubbed the oath. Chief Justice Roberts later said Obama's sudden silence during his repetition was due to the judge's error in placement of the word "faithfully," but all Obama had to do was repeat what he heard, whatever that was. Instead he stopped, and with Roberts, tripped over the next sentence.

In subsequent newsclip coverage of that historic moment, only the smooth first sentence was repeated; the gaffe was gone.

Then came Obama's speech. "Insipid" would be a charitable assessment. Rambling, redundant, hokey, nondescript would also apply. I got together with four friends afterward to post-mortem the ceremony, and asked them which lines they found memorable. None came to mind.

At times, Obama seemed disrespectful to President Bush, who the camera occasionally glimpsed, grimacing. "On this day we gather because we have chosen hope [me] over fear [Bush/McCain], unity of purpose [me] over conflict and discord [Bush/McCain].

"On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas [of Bush/McCain], that for far too long have strangled our politics."

Uh, thank you, Mr. President. The guy you're dissing was sitting right there, and the only thanks you gave him was for his "service" and for his "generosity and cooperation" during "this transition." Nothing about how he oversaw our nation's healing from the shock and horror of 9/11, and created mechanisms that have kept us safe ever since.

But rather than dwell on what Pres. Obama didn't say, it's much more fun to rack up the cliches he did: Right at the top we've got "rising tides of prosperity," "still waters of peace," "gathering clouds" and "raging storms."

We move from weather to forefathers who "packed up their few worldy possessions," "traveled across oceans in search of a new life," "toiled in sweatshops," and "plowed the hard earth."

And why this "long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom?" Well, to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America [now that we're rid of Bush]." "The economy calls for action (YOO-hoo!), bold and swift--and we will act!"

WE, ie those who pay taxes, with his $800 billion stimulus package, will: create jobs, build roads, bridges, electric grids and digital lines; restore science to its rightful place (where was it?) and "wield technology's wonders" toward better, cheaper health care.

This will be my first chance to wield a wonder.

But there's more: I'll also "harness the sun and the winds and the soil"--quite a wielding feat--"to fuel our cars and run our factories."

Most ga-ga commentary has focused on the line, "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works." Well, no. If the governement is too big, for sure it doesn't work. And name me one place where government is too small? Better to ask not what your country can do for you. Much better.

What scared me was his insistance on a "watchful eye" over "the market" since "a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous" but since I can't figure out what he means there, it's probably nothing.

At least I got from his following five minutes of rambling that he's not about to please his anti-war base by abandoning strong defense. And I woke up with a smile with his jolly mixed metaphor about "rolling back the specter of a warming planet." After this winter, that specter sounds rather good to me; certainly too good to roll.

But rolling off of Pres. Obama's tongue were plenty more cheerful phrases: "the road that unfolds before us" (must be on a map?), "fallen heroes" who "are guardians of our liberty" (not in that position they're not), "We have duties to ourselves" (to eat, to sleep, to go to the bathroom) that we "sieze gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit...than giving our all to a difficult task" (whatever that may be).

He concludes by cleverly circling back to the weather: "in this winter of our hardship...let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come." And the unfolding road: "we refused to let this journey end; we did not turn back nor did we falter...we carried forth..."

...to a snore of a conclusion and then more memorable parts of the inauguration--the national poem and Rev. Lowery's benediction. I hope to post a parody of the poem for you tomorrow, but tonight it's enough to savor that we have a new president, and a speech that made me chuckle rather than quake.


  1. I'm off to weld and wander.

    I also think that the poet, in a tribute to Biden's Irish heritage, should've done a multi-stanza limerick.

  2. I don't know... I thought it was much better than you did, and cliches are unavoidable in a Presidential speech. Everyone remembers JFK's line, but the rest of his speech spoke of the very cliched "renewal" and "change", which gets repeated in lots of speeches.

    In terms of historical precedence, Bush's thanks to Clinton was a hastily spoken half-sentence, while Clinton's to his father was a glorifying tribute that resulted in a standing ovation. Reagan's to Carter was a thanks for a smooth transition - not even a thanks for his service - while Kennedy didn't do a thank you at all.

    I thought the lines about cutting programs that don't work was important and a move away from the left, and the willingness to shake hands if Muslim countries unclench their fists was nicely put and consistent with Bush's inaugural in 2004. I don't think he was defending big government or criticizing small, merely noting that it's not the size but the utility of government that matters, which I think most people can agree with.

    Overall, I thought it was a good, though not incredible, speech; the test will be if he lives up to what he says.

  3. Ruth Anne, you weld (hope it sticks!) and I'll wield; should be wild.

    Ezzie, You're right; Obama's speech was actually reassurring in its message, if you could eke it out of that verbiage.

    As far as previous predecessor acknowledgements, perhaps they do vary; as I read that Reagan barely thanked 'the worthless one,' I think retrospectively how generous that was.

    I agree that cutting malfunctioning programs was a nice touch, but it was counteracted by all his promises; I was glad he specified Muslims (and surprised) but his "extended hand" was directed toward "those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent" which must be hard when all you've got to "cling" with is your fist (another mangled metaphor).

    I thought the speech was poor because he threw away an opportunity and because this speech paled compared to earlier ones in his campaign.

  4. It definitely paled, but I think that that would be true no matter how good this had been... to an extent, many are saying he was specifically trying to lower (/make realistic) expectations, which one can either be pro or comment cynically about relative to his campaign. Or both. :)

  5. Unless it's got some good line in it, it's forgettable almost in its entirety. It's just words. The question(s) will be, does he really get rid of government that "doesn't work" or just keep making bureaucracies piled upon bureaucracies? Will he really get power from the wind etc. -- which we can do, no problem, the problem is doing so reliably and cost-effectively -- or just throw money at favored companies to make really super-duper efficient and cheap solar cells Real Soon Now? Will he stand up to countries like Iran or just talk a tough game and really do nothing?

    "Talk is cheap" is not just a cliche.

  6. Funniest part was most definitely the bit about harnessing the sun (!) You'd think it would be harmless to talk about alternate sources of energy, but that particular phrasing and Obama's ridiculous constantly upturned head and Greek-god bathing suit poses... his speechwriters could quite possibly have been having a laugh at his expense. And anyway, even if someone writes that into your speech--who could bring himself to actually SAY that?


  7. As I listened I felt like I was being subliminally told "everything will be OK ... (don't look behind the curtain)...." This new Wizard of Oz, gently soothed our fears about his liberal, socialistic campaign promises, and told us to forget the scary stuff and just trust him.

    I fear that too many of us might be lulled to sleep or inattention, believing that "he really isn't so scary afterall."

    "You are sleepy; very, very sleepy ... "