The Louisville Courier-Journal mocked the stump speech of presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, summing it up, “Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead.”
The critique is true of many inaugural speeches. They are full of trite clichés gussied up by tried and true speechwriting techniques to sound important. A little repetition here. A dash of anaphorism there. And boom, speech! We must move forward, not backward! Together we can overcome the challenges we face! We must learn from the past and build towards a better future! Sigh.
But four years ago America was treated to something different. Yes, there were the obligatory references to our forbears and our forefathers, but it was also a seemingly heartfelt plea to change the sclerotic culture of Washington. He bravely acknowledged “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age” and he promised “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recrimination and worn-out dogmas that for too long have strangled our politics.”
You could almost hear the collective Amen! ringing from coast to coast. Unfortunately, the product didn’t live up to the promise. From the beginning it was clear that President Obama wouldn’t change Washington, he would work within it, and in some cases make it worse. The deals are still crafted, only the closed doors are now locked, the smoke filled rooms even smokier.
The man who once promised to overturn the partisan creed-worship, has overseen its incredible expansion. Far from the free-thinker we were promised, President Obama has fallen prey to the worst elements of his party, forcing him to reject compromise after compromise because of their uncompromising stance on entitlements. As liberal commentator Dana Milbank writes for the Washington Post,
“Four years ago, hundreds of thousands of people flooded the capital, sleeping on floors and lining the streets so they could be a part of history: the inauguration of the first black president, who had the promise of being a transformational figure that could bring hope and change to a broken political system.
That messiah never came, and a sluggish economic recovery overshadowed his term. Obama was reelected less because he inspired the nation than because he discredited his opponent.”
But regardless of the disappointment, here we are, back to watch President Obama’s second inaugural address. We tuned in, not to hear some grandiloquent speech, but to remain eternally hopeful that the next four years will be better than the last four. Regardless of the man, or the party, who occupies the White House, Inauguration Day should be a symbol of hope, even amongst disagreement.
And yet unlike his first address he provided little hope that Washington could be changed.
“Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time,” Obama said, effectively accepting a new, aggressively partisan stance. “For now decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay.”
No one will dispute the tough decisions that must be made. But Obama went a step further, putting everything in terms of black and white, wrong and right, where the reality is much greyer.
“We rejected the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future,” Obama said in one memorable passage. And yet who is this mythical party that wants to mistreat the elderly? Surely he doesn’t mean Republicans, the only party with any ideas on how to extend the life of fiscally troubled programs like Social Security and Medicare so that they may survive and thrive for every generation.
And so it went with nearly every issue – taxes, education, immigration, gun control. You name it, President Obama took a not so subtle jab at some misshapen caricature that liberals will call Republicans. Americans deserve better. How sad that on a day meant to fill us with hope about the next four years has only left us longing for four years ago.