Should Obama's Inaugural Address Be Bleak?

by Eve Fairbanks | January 15, 2009

David Ignatius had a thought-provoking, broad-brush op-ed this morning about the Bush administration's political temperament -- "This administration has fused a dark, conservative view about the need for military power with a rosy conception about the perfectibility of humankind" -- versus the incoming Obama crew's temperament. Of the latter, he wrote:

With the inauguration of Barack Obama, the moment has arrived for what I want to call the "progressive pessimists." This new worldview would marry the liberal desire to make life better with a realist's appreciation of the limits of political and military power. This is a gloomier progressivism than President John F. Kennedy's 1961 admonition to "pay any price, bear any burden." We've tried that.

We'll have to wait for Obama's own inaugural address to see just where his compass is pointed. But there was a notable absence of heaven-on-earth rhetoric in his speech last Thursday at George Mason University. Obama painted a bleak picture of double-digit unemployment and a lost generation of workers.

Ignatius goes on to cite politicians, like Lincoln and Madison, whose political wisdom was underpinned by a darker worldview. It's nice to see this model of leadership rehabilitated now that President Alfred E. Neuman is finally taking his leave.

I want to dissent, though, from Ignatius's implied wish for Obama's inaugural speech: that it not involve "heaven-on-earth" rhetoric, that it be in some sense dark, or at least "realistic" about his imminent presidency's "limits." The other day, a friend argued to me -- in the Ignatius vein -- that Obama ought to try to "bring people down" and "lower expectations" in his inaugural. There's this idea circulating that, because Obama has supposedly mastered the elevating and prophetic speech, it's a kind of reverse brilliance for him to play it low-key and not too inspired, so that people don't start expecting him to feed 5,000 with two fishes. But this is a political move: It telegraphs the message to his critics (and overheated supporters), "Hey, get off my back." And a first inaugural address ought to rise above political concerns.

I'm not saying Obama's speech should draw from Kumbayah themes, predict a Pax Obama during his reign, etc. There should be some serious acknowledgement of our troubling situation. But look, he may only serve one term. This speech is it. Please, please don't let it be all gloomy, granular, John-Edwards-esque tales of some woman he met on the campaign trail who lost her leg during a feral dog stampede and didn't have health insurance and so on. Obama should draw on every drop he has in the reservoir of powerful rhetoric, to paint a picture of the promise and the huge capacity for renewal this country still has. That's what I'd love to hear, anyway, although it ain't up to me.

--Eve Fairbanks

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