Inauguration 2009: Obama's Break with Tradition

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Mr. Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford, 2008).

President Barack Obama has been accused of being a celebrity and a poet, but we now know that his ambitions for our country go beyond personal theatrics and lyrics. In his first week in office, the President signed executive orders banning his aides from lobbying any executive agency for the lifetime of his administration, as well as ending the Bush administration's policy against the release of presidential documents in a move to signal his administration's commitment to transparency. He also signed orders to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, and to order that all interrogation techniques should follow the instructions laid out in the Army Field Manual.

These are sweeping changes, even more tangible than they are symbolic. But we already saw this coming from his startling departure from inaugural protocol that we witnessed last week. No, not the Chief Justice's oath-of-office gaffe, but rhetorical patterns so stark and yet so barely noticed that it reveals the national mood in which we are in, and the transformative agenda of the President.

In the long history of Inaugural addresses, President Obama's address was a sharper repudiation of the previous administration's policies than any we have seen in our lifetime. For a rhetorical genre traditionally dedicated to the celebration of continuity, shared values, and unity, President Obama's jabs at the previous administration stretched the boundaries of inaugural protocol. He spoke of the triumph of "hope over fear" -- a reference to the tactics he perceived the Republicans used in previous elections. He rejected the artificial choice between "our safety and our ideals," an indictment of water-boarding and Guantanamo bay. He promised to "restore science to its rightful place," implying that science has been relegated to the backburner in recent times. Even in his statement to foreign nations, he made clear that "we are ready to lead once more," implying that we haven't in a while. Usually, Presidents have appealed to Scripture to articulate timeless and unifying truths, but President Obama used Scripture to chastise the political knaves of the past, saying, "the time has come to set aside childish things." (1 Corinthians 13:11)

So this is not a president bound even by the time-honored traditions of the Inaugural Address. He would not even dwell on oratorical flourishes – and the Inaugural Address is just the place to celebrate and rehearse our shared civil religious values – even though we know that he is perfectly capable of rendering it. President Obama does not care for memorable words which can be carved on monuments, but words which will brace a country for the "gathering clouds and raging storms" in the horizon. Campaigning orator Obama is no more. Now he is President.

Like great presidents before him, Obama is attempting to rewrite even the parameters by which we disagree with each other so that he can carry the country forward according to his script. "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works" he proclaimed. Obama will not sanction these old-fashion antitheses. They are "worn out dogmas" and "stale political arguments," binary conceptions of Left versus Right that will necessarily leave him with only one half of the national majority. Just as Lincoln redefined the meaning of federalism, and FDR redefined the meaning of liberalism, Obama wants to radically reconstruct our understanding of government, to create a new ideological synthesis. He intends, quite simply and perhaps naively, to build a government that works. And he is confident that he will succeed: "All this we can do. All this we will do." These bold words parallel the cadence of the Jewish people responding to Moses' rendition of the 10 Commandments: "All that the Lord hath spoken, we will do." (Exodus 19:8) They do not exemplify pragmatic liberalism or rhetorical bipartisanship, but aggressive and ambitious leadership.

If the Inaugural address is a ritualistic celebration of democratic continuity, President Obama's departure from its genre imperatives reveals a distinct desire not for transition but transformation. The fact that his recriminations and boldness have received little notice suggest, for better or for worse, that the American people are pliable, ready, yearning for leadership. I hope President Obama handles this trust with abundant care.

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Jonathan Dresner - 1/26/2009

Apparently, Mr. Clayson, you're new to the idea of spelling people's names correctly.

I'm the guy who watches every state of the union (and the responses!), all four nights of both conventions, inaugurals, press conferences.... I don't need the media to tell me what I saw, heard or what it meant. (I thought most of the media sounded pretty chipper the last two times, frankly.) I've been watching these things for about thirty years. I also didn't say anything about what I thought President Obama might be capable of. I noticed the tone and the deliberate repudiations when I heard the speech the first time, and I thought it was entirely appropriate for a man who was elected president by a solid majority with a congressional majority, to replace the least popular and effective president in modern history.

You're guessing, and not addressing the point.

Vernon Clayson - 1/26/2009

Apparently, Johnathan Dresner, you are new to inaugural speeches. In the world before the likes of Chris Matthews, Bob Schieffer, Keith Olberman and the others of their ilk, we were left to our own understanding of inauguration speeches. Strangely, compared to now, news reporters merely provided information in their reports on what was said, they, unlike today's media figures, believed we could make our own assessment, no one had to tell us how thrilled and impressed we were or what a marvelous personage the new president was. Can anyone imagine a similar display of maudlin idolatry over the inauguration of any previous president? There was what can only be described as a religious fervor over the elevation of Obama to the presidency, in truth it was unseemly and embarassing to our culture. The nearest thing I can compare it to is the hysterical young man on You Tube demand that we leave Britney Spears alone. Mr. Dresner, calm down, this nation has survived 43 presidents and George Bush is gone, it's time for you to turn the page and see what Number 44 actually does in his sojourn. Barack Obama is not Lincoln, he is not FDR, he is not JFK, he is merely Barack Obama, a new and untested president.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/25/2009

In the long history of Inaugural addresses, President Obama's address was a sharper repudiation of the previous administration's policies than any we have seen in our lifetime.

I can't think of another tradition in which such a repudiation was more necessary. Leaving aside the campaign rhetoric of "change," I can't think of a transition in post-WWII history which involved such immense and troubling challenges so directly related to the policies of the preceding administration.