Analysis of Barack Obama's inauguration speech and its most memorable lines

As the sun rose in New Zealand, Barack Obama put his hand on Abraham Lincoln's bible and ushered in a new day in American politics. So what do we make of his beginning?

The speech was excellent and profound without being as stirring and out-and-out inspirational as some had hoped. Everyone's looking for the one-liner that will compare with Roosevelt's "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" or Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country".

The US newspapers are mostly leading their banners with the "era of new responsibility" line. New York Times: "President Obama vows era of responsibility". USA Today: "Obama: Embrace the era of responsibility". Chicago Tribune: "A new era of responsibility".

So it could become known as the 'Responsibility Speech'. It was there in the climax of his speech, when he said:

What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

But let's not forget it was also at the beginning of the speech, when he spoke of choosing "our better history," adding:

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less.

Yet there's no universal agreement quite yet on the speech's core. Washington Post: "The challenges we face are real". Slate: "This winter of our hardship". Huffington Post: Obama: "Choose hope over fear".

I'm wondering whether it might be called the 'Extended Hand Speech', for it was his line about foreign relations that struck me most when he was speaking:

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.

It was a surprisingly global speech – the 'Global Speech'? – and dealt much more with America's place in the world than Obama's plans for America. That's an interesting choice – and for those of us outside the US a hopeful one. He even talked about helping farms to flourish in poor nations. He'll have to cut US subsidies to do that.

Consider that he said, "...our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please". That repudiates the Bush doctrine in a single, eloquent line.

What remains with me after the speech? There was a lovely line about America's "patchwork heritage" and another saying that "the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself". There was the simple mention that half a century ago segregation meant his father couldn't get a cup of coffee in DC. For the first time a US president was able to talk about slaves in the collective sense. While Obama has no history of slavery in his own family, his wife Michelle has ancestors who were both slave and slave-owners, so he said, referring to American pioneers, that "For us they... endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth."

There was reassurance in the face of the recession:

"Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished."

Obama talked more than once about hard choices. About choosing hope over fear, of earning greatness, of choosing a path not for the faint-hearted, and at the start of the speech of, "our collective failure to make hard choices". He knows that American living standards will suffer in his first term, that he will ask sacrifice of the people, so you can take that as a warning.

Then there were the references to the founding fathers and documents. He's a fan of Abraham Lincoln's and he and his speechwriters had read Lincoln carefully in preparing this address. But perhaps he felt referencing Lincoln, the greatest of presidential speech-makers, was too risky or arrogant. Instead he quoted George Washington. In his denouement Obama used words Washington had read to his troops in the tough winter towards the end of the American war of independence:

Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive ... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].

It's a great paragraph in our strained times. But the talk of founding fathers and documents also drew a line under the Bush presidency and it's woeful treatment of the constitution, what with torture, Guantanamo, wire-tapping and the like.

It must have been a number of moments when George W. must have winced more than a little on the inside. Obama spoke about tolerance and fair play and then said, "What is demanded then is a return (my emphasis) to these truths". Ouch. He said the Founding Fathers were committed to the rule of law and the rights of man and, "we will not give them up for expedience's sake". Ooofff. And to ram home the point, Obama added, "But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed". Wallop.

So for me the speech was more than else a re-casting of America on the world stage; an end to the era of Bush hubris and fiasco; an attempt to regain the old role of enlightened, moral leader with the iron fist. It may be that time has passed. I suspect America will never be the one superpower ever again. But "America, the role model" would be a welcome part for the world's most powerful nation to play as the first amongst equals.

Given that, perhaps the most telling line in Obama's speech was buried slap-bang in the middle, when he said: "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."

This is a president who believes in means, not just ends; in bringing people together; in not just doing the job, but doing it in a way that marries success and principle. That's a hell of a standard to set himself as a global leader. We can only wish him well.

Comments (10)

by Graeme Edgeler on January 21, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

Consider that he said, "...our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please". That repudiates the Bush doctrine in a single, eloquent line.

Of course, he also speaks (not in the Inaugural address, but at other times) of achieving peace in Afghanistan by defeating the Taleban. He doesn't just talk of defeating Al Qaueda in Afghanistan, but also the Government that then sheltered them.

George Bush's idea that "we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them" is a key component of the Bush Doctrine.

Obama has shifted over aspects of it, but the shift falls somewhat short of the repudiation of the Bush Doctrine that you assert.

by Chris de Lisle on January 21, 2009
Chris de Lisle

I don't think the Taliban can be considered to be a government anymore, though. They are now an insurgent group threatening (from an American/Western perspective) the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Aiming to defeat them dosen't neccessarily have anything to do with the Bush Doctrine.

As for the speech itself, I was thoroughly impressed. I don't think there were many profound one-liners, but I can't say that's a bad thing- We got a speech full of profound ideas, which is, preferable to a string of sound-bites.

As an aside, I thought the benediction from Joseph Lowery was also very good.

Anyway, Obama once again promised much, and I can't wait for him to get down to business. It's going to be an exciting four years!

by Graeme Edgeler on January 21, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

I don't think the Taliban can be considered to be a government anymore, though. They are now an insurgent group threatening (from an American/Western perspective) the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Aiming to defeat them dosen't neccessarily have anything to do with the Bush Doctrine.

What is Obama's reason for wanting to defeat the Taleban? If it is not for harbouring the terrorists who executed the September 11 attacks (which I think is the more likely), it would seem that the next most likely rationale would be to secure a fledgling democracy from tyranny (feel free to come up with another). However, the expansion of democracy through military force is another core component of the Bush Doctrine.

by Chris de Lisle on January 21, 2009
Chris de Lisle

Given that a democratic government already exists in Afghanistan I don't know if maintaining troops in the region to protect it counts as expanding democracy by force.
Anyway, the best statement I've found of his motivation is "As 9/11 showed us, the security of Afghanistan and America is shared. And today, that security is most threatened by the al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary in the tribal regions of northwest Pakistan." from http://origin.barackobama.com/2007/08/01/remarks_of_senator_obama_the_w.php (Regrettably over a year old, so his reasons may have changed if these ever were true ones).

In this, anyway, he seems to be casting defeat of the Taliban as essential to regional security- and thus to preventing a repeat of 911, rather than a war of retaliation.

It seems that the major point of difference that Obama tries to make between his policy and Bush's is not so much that he refuses to intervene, but that he wants more non-military intervention- bumping up aid to Afghanistan and winning over the populace with propaganda programmes. He also seems place greater stress on multi-lateralism.

by Graeme Edgeler on January 22, 2009
Graeme Edgeler

In this, anyway, he seems to be casting defeat of the Taliban as essential to regional security - and thus to preventing a repeat of 911, rather than a war of retaliation.

So ... the Taleban weren't directly responsible for 9/11, but because they might create conditions for such an attack to happen again, because, at some future time, they may present a threat to US security, we should stop them now.

Attack someone who has not attacked us, and who is not currently a direct threat to the US so that because we think they want to, and fear they might be a position to do it in the future, we should attack them now. Respond not to a threat, but act to prevent a threat forming in the future - engage in a preventive war. And if that isn't a third pillar (and one of the most controversial) of the Bush Doctrine.

by Tim Watkin on January 22, 2009
Tim Watkin

Interesting debate guys. I take your point Graeme, that given Obama's Afghanistan policy "repudiates" may have been too stronger words. It was the rejection of "preventative" war and especially unilateralism (ie "to do as we please") that I was referring to. And those are core to the Bush Doctrine.

I'm not yet sure whether Obama's policies re Afghanistan tell us very much about his foreign policy agenda at all. He's not attacking, he's dealing with the cards dealt him, cleaning up the mess. I think he's foolish to talk of victory there and hope that's down to domestic politics rather than sincere belief. His goals there, as you guys have said, are to a) fight terrorists (Taliban, Al Q, and others) and b) stabilise what I think is the most dangerous region in the world. Neither goals fit the Bush Doctrine, Graeme. Clinton did as much. Remember, the Afghanistan occupation has the UN's blessing, support from NATO and even New Zealand. And "defeating the Taliban", well, it wouldn't be a bad thing, would it?

Having said all that, don't expect Obama to be a dove. Democratic presidents seldom are and his words have always been tough (if less militaristic than Bush).

by Tim Watkin on January 22, 2009
Tim Watkin

Y'know, if America suffers a terrorist attack during Obama's first term, people will start re-appraising the Bush presidency and doctrine. They'd be wrong to do so, because the doctrine's fundamentally wrong in principle regardless of result or timing. But the Bush Doctrine should not be dismissed as done and dusted just because the man's gone.

And check out Bob Woodward's fascinating piece on 10 lessons Obama can learn from Bush, here.

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