Realizing that it's foolish to continually try to top yourself, President Obama didn't try on Tuesday.
He's already given at least three A-Plus speeches of the sort that any politician would kill to give even one: the Democratic National Convention address in DNC 2004, the Philadelphia speech on race, and the Chicago speech on fatherhood. A big Obama supporting friend of mine also would include the victory speech after Iowa. So, that's actually four.
Did, he have to hit another home run for the Inaugural? Maybe he did (my Obama-loving friend thought so). But, I believe he made the correct choice. By playing against type, he actually raised the stakes. He eschewed the high-soaring rhetoric that typified the campaign, choosing instead to stay down-to-earth with a tone more suitable to the hard work of governing. Toward that end, Obama laid out an arguably centrist theme designed to bring people together to deal with the challenges ahead.
In words designed to reassure some conservatives, he took an appropriately hawkish tone toward the enemies of America -- not just once, but twice:
We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.
To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. 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.
His harshest language on domestic matters actually seemed directed -- not for George W. Bush or specific Republican policies -- but more for an entire generation, the baby boomers who have been running this country for the past 16 years (and, of course, that has to include Bill Clinton too). He seemed more interested in identifying the generation that he saw as responsible for the more systemic problems facing the country:
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.
On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.
Those words were reminiscent of the “turn the page” language he used effectively against Hillary Clinton in the primaries. This time, though, it was quite clear that he wasn't singling out the Clintons, but was making a broader, more pointed claim against the excesses of an entire generation of leaders. And, on the financial front, Bill Clinton signed the law that overturned Glass-Steagall, while George W. Bush signed the law that quote-reformed-unquote bankruptcy laws. So, Obama may well be on strong footing there. He's demontrating an unwillingness to hear excuses from either Democratic or Republican partisans.
As if to put a rhetorical bookend on the era of the boomers, Barack Obama is the first president to name-check a specific Vietnam battlefield (Khe Sahn) in a speech. Well, at least since Vietnam, it's pretty safe to say. Geez, the ’60s really are over. One thought though: Did a speechwriter remember Khe Sahn because of the line in "Born in the U.S.A"? Just asking.
In the rejection of the perceived aggressive foreign policy of the Bush years -- "[Our] power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please" -- overly partisan statements were kept at a minimum. There was the “we will restore science to its rightful place…” line (which seemed a little gratuitous) and the “as for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals…” (which was much less so; civil libertarians on both the left and the right could find agreement in that statement).
Obama will undoubtedly schedule a "State of the Union-lite" address within the next few weeks (new presidents rarely do a full-fledged SOTU in their first year) where he will offer more specifics on his agenda for the next 12 months.That's when the policy gets into the weeds.
But, on this January day, Barack Obama understood that he had inspired by just stepping onto the stage and taking the oath of office. He only needed to sketch an outline of what the next steps will look like. He needed not to overpromise a country that has so much invested in him. And he didn't. Now, the tough work begins.