Variations on a Theme: Spare Change in Obama’s Inaugural Address

Joseph Knippenberg

January 1, 2009

In a remarkable display of poor judgment, our Dean of Students asked me to watch Barack Obama’s inauguration with a campus audience and then offer some comments afterward. Truth be told, he was looking for a genuinely fair and balanced panel. As luck would have it, he ended up with only two contrarians who were among the few faculty on campus who didn’t vote for our new President. And we disappointed our audience by not unreservedly embracing the omnipresent mantra of change.

I opened my remarks with an Inaugural Address history quiz, asking members of the audience to identify the presidents who uttered these words.

  • I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently a time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.…
  • We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end as well as a beginning—signifying renewal as well as change.…

    The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.

  • The business of our nation goes forward. These United States are confronted with an economic affliction of great proportions. We suffer from the longest and one of the worst sustained inflations in our national history. It distorts our economic decisions, penalizes thrift, and crushes the struggling young and the fixed-income elderly alike. It threatens to shatter the lives of millions of our people.

    Idle industries have cast workers into unemployment, human misery, and personal indignity.…

    In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society is too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden.…

    We hear much of special interest groups. Well, our concern must be for a special interest group that has been too long neglected. It knows no sectional boundaries or ethnic and racial divisions, and it crosses political party lines. It is made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and factories, teach our children.… They are, in short, “We the people,” this breed called Americans.

  • Our Founders saw themselves in the light of posterity. We can do no less. Anyone who has watched a child’s eyes wander into sleep knows what posterity is. Posterity is the world to come: the world for whom we hold our ideals, from whom we have borrowed our planet, and to whom we bear sacred responsibility. We must do what America does best: offer more opportunity to all and demand more responsibility from all. It is time to break the bad habit of expecting something from nothing from our Government or from each other. Let us take responsibility not only for ourselves and our families but for our communities and our country.
  • Many in our country do not know the pain of poverty, but we can listen to those who do.

    And I can pledge our nation to a goal: When we see the wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.

    America, at its best, is a place where personal responsibility is valued and expected.

    Encouraging responsibility is not a search for scapegoats, it is a call to conscience. And though it requires sacrifice, it brings a deeper fulfillment. We find the fullness of life not only in options, but in commitments. And we find that children and community are the commitments that set us free.

These are the words, respectively, of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Barack Obama’s predecessors spoke of change, challenge, responsibility, and community. My audience got the easy ones right—Roosevelt and Reagan. They couldn’t imagine—in the harsh judgment of their youth—that George W. Bush (at whom they quite ungraciously jeered when the camera turned to him during Obama’s Address) uttered the last paragraphs I quoted.

The themes of President Obama’s Inaugural Address were not new, nor were his variations all that variant. Some of this is dictated by the conventions of the Inauguration. New Presidents have to invoke our civic religion, have to remind us of past greatness, and have to call us to renewed efforts. They’re setting out to “lead” a nation, not win an election, so they always seek to unify and to put past divisions behind them (and us). I don’t mean to deprecate these purposes and I don’t regard them as trivial.

But I reminded my audience of the continuities between Barack Obama and his predecessors because many of them act as if they were born yesterday. (Or course, politically, many of them were.) They’re convinced that there has never been any politician like Barack Obama, while to me—jade that I am—he sounds all too familiar.

I wished also to suggest to them both the importance and limits of words. Like all his predecessors, Barack Obama faces the twin challenges of moving from words to deeds, and using his words to move us to deeds. The fact that very different presidents can sound quite similar ought to be sufficient to remind us that their words may not fully reveal their intentions and that, even if they do, those intentions have to be fulfilled on the ground, so to speak. Presidents can be sidetracked or distracted by unanticipated events. They can fall into the trap of believing that governing isn’t all that different from campaigning, that what worked to get voters to the polls will work just as well to get members of Congress to sign onto legislative initiatives. They can misread public sentiments. And, most importantly, they can come to believe that their words are “reality” or by themselves can change reality, while, as a matter of fact, their words are most effective and persuasive when they conform to reality.

I’ve put it this way a number of times since November 4th: Barack Obama campaigned as a kid, but he has given many indications of wanting to govern as a grown-up. He has staffed his Administration with grown-ups. (Imagine how well it would have gone over on the campaign trail if he had consistently promised to bring all sorts of folks from the Clinton Administration back into government. “Yes we can” have Hillary Clinton in the White House, albeit only for cabinet meetings.) And the biggest part of being a political grown-up is honestly and clear-sightedly confronting the “hard choices” and tough, if not intractable, problems to which Obama referred in his Inaugural Address.

This is a case where I hope I can take his words seriously, that he means what he says and says what he means:

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works—whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account—to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day—because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

If he genuinely means it, he’s asking a grown-up question and is promising squarely to confront answers that perhaps go against his ideological predilections. Will he, for example, recognize that the record shows that giving more money to “government schools” doesn’t produce better performance and that it’s time to consider alternatives? Will he admit that the government program of detaining dangerous enemies of our country in Guantanamo has “worked,” or will he seek a viable alternative, or will he just let these bad guys go?

I could go on, but you get my drift. Wednesday’s New York Times is full of celebrations of Obama as the anti-Bush, but that is just a knee-jerk ideological reaction, as childish as the student jeering section on my campus and the crowd serenading the now former President with “Na na na na, hey hey, goodbye.” A grown-up President Obama doesn’t just play to this peanut gallery. Just as the “ground has shifted” beneath the so-called cynics, so ought it to have shifted, if we take President Obama at his word, beneath the reflexively partisan Bush-haters, whose object of opprobrium is now in private life. Grown-ups recognize that hard questions don’t have easy answers and that government isn’t always the answer and that there are limits to what even the smartest, most capable Administration can do.

There are other words I want President Obama and, indeed, any and every president, to take seriously, and those are the words of the oath of office he stumblingly took. He is to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. In his Inaugural Address, he promised, in effect, to be “faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.” There’s something a bit more slippery about this formulation than about the oath of office. Let me explain. In class today I spoke with students about Marbury v. Madison, a case in which William Marbury was denied by the Supreme Court a job to which it acknowledged he had a right. He had a right, but no constitutional path to vindicate that right, so the Court upheld the Constitution at the expense of his right. Justice wasn’t fully done, but the Constitution was upheld. I have a sneaking suspicion that judges nominated by President Obama will be more interested in getting to “justice” than in adhering to a merely literal reading of the Constitution. In his formulation, the ideals might be privileged at the expense of the document.

Here is a case where words are very important. The words of the Constitution create institutions and mechanisms to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice” and so on. They are not mere ideals, mere castles in the air. They are informed by a realistic understanding of finitude and fallibility of human nature. They’re grown-up words, effective because of the sobriety, intelligence, and insight of those who wrote them. You might not be able to make a rap video out of them, but I do seem to recall a catchy tune based on the words of the Preamble. I defy anyone, however, to put Article I, Section 8 to memorable music.…

In the end, the words I will take most seriously are those in President Obama’s oath, and the words to which they refer. The former embody an aspiration and a most solemn promise. They’re not wishes, but commitments. The latter establish and describe the structures our new President will inhabit. Let us constantly remind him of them, lest he and his supporters forget.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.