This morning President Barack Obama delivered his inaugural address to a chilly, sometimes stunned, and deeply moved audience. I found myself holding back tears, standing out of sheer excitement, raising my coffee mug to the ceiling again and again in salute to a sea change in American politics. This speech changes everything.
Gone was the sizzle and spin of a century of American political speech writing. American politicians have spent lifetimes cultivating the skill of speaking without conveying meaning. They use as many words as possibile to say as little as possible. Today, president Obama displayed a rare political quality: he used an economy of words to convey a wealth of meaning. For as long as I’ve paid attention to politics, I have witnessed it drift further and further into the hyperreal of entertainment and doublespeak. Obama has appeared as the “unexpected” that interrupts the dissemination of the hyperreal.
My generation has been waiting for that speech. We have been waiting for an America that we could take pride in building. We have waited, and waited, and waited, and have not built a damn thing! Simply because it seemed that there was nothing worth doing. The American dream seemed feeble because its current iteration was just wealth for wealth’s sake. Approaching the primaries, the country did not seem ready for Obama. During them I remember saying: “Let Hillary win and clean up Bush’s mess, then Obama can come back when he has a little more experience.”
Today, maybe for the first time, I have hope for this country. I have hope for its leadership. I have hope for its future. And somehow, I believe that as one citizen, I can play a part in building America.
And yet, the critics were not so moved. Following the address I listened to some interviews on NPR, and was very surprised at the reaction. I paraphrase: “He should have sung,” said a former speech writer. “What we got was nuts and bolts; a very matter of fact speech. You could tell that the audience wasn’t really into it. Usually Obama soars in his speeches, this was low to the ground. It was the wrong choice.” At first I was aghast. Then I mulled it over I realized, this former speech writer is out of touch. He was expecting the same old thing: heavy on the rhetoric, light on the meaning. What he failed to realize is that the audience understood that this address was not entertainment. They understood that what they were witnessing was not spectacle. It was something new, something unexpected.
Two lines from the speech mark the difference between old America and the new America that is emerging from this election. Those of us who are young enough to have formed our identity in a global age resonnate deeply with the president when he says: “that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.” We are aware that the world is full of human beings, not nation states; and that as human beings, our interests transcend geography, race, and religion. This awareness stands in stark contrast to the isolationist policies of our ancestors.
The second line interprets much of the rest of the speech, and it is spoken to a generation that has not known how to grow up, let alone know what to do once they did. It is a line that ushers in a new era of political thought in America. Out of many memorable ones, this takes the cake: “We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”
I walked away from that speech a different man. Though I cannot speak for America, I believe that my reaction is not unique. In the midst of doubt and apathy about an uncertain future, in the midst of what seemed like an endless process of waiting for collapse, unexpectedly, someone decided to stop waiting. Today, he stood in front of us as our new president, and I found myself wanting to stand with him.