The Speech
February 2009

by Ron Steinman

After almost two years of relentless campaigning, on January 20th Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. As a nation we waited for his speech, one that would help further define his vision for America.

Inaugural speeches, especially the first one a new president makes, often, but not always, help set the tone of the new administration. I wondered not so much what President Obama would say, but how he would say it. Of course, I was curious to see how long he would talk. Would he bore us with a lengthy speech? Would it be short and pointed? What would be his theme or themes? To any concerned person those seemed obvious. Would his rhetoric soar as expected? Most of all, would he be honest and use that prime bully pulpit to warn every American there were hard times ahead because of the economy, and extremely difficult challenges for our foreign policy? Speculation was rife. The pundits were in full blush. They had to fill time on TV and many inches of copy in newspapers and online. Each pundit, anchor and reporter was ready to make his or her instant judgment on whether President Obama did a good job with words. Deeds would have to, or not, follow.

I was safely in the warmth of my home watching the swearing-in of Barack Obama on TV. On a very cold day, Obama stood before the assembled masses in Washington. He placed his hand on a Lincoln Bible and he took the oath. President Obama then delivered his first Inaugural Address. Forget the defining moment of Barack Obama's swearing-in. Forget what detractors said about Barack Obama's speeches during the campaign.

In the long campaign, Obama's opponents criticized him for his soaring rhetoric. Often for being too soaring. Here was a man accused of caring only for his celebrity and his desire to be president above all else. His speeches proved anathema to disgruntled Republicans who had no defense against his ability to energize the huge crowds he attracted on his way to the presidency.

After the campaign, once he became president-elect, the press, with clearly too much time on its hands, started to call Barack Obama "dull," "boring," and as it did, it wondered what kind of administration he would run. Meaning what would the press find to report about for the next four years, as if the coming four years would provide no excitement. As if the state of the world would not provide enough to do. Nonsense. A good friend said Obama is "not thrilling." Agreed. I'd rather have "not thrilling" than someone with an itchy trigger finger.

As with many of us, I have been thinking about Lincoln's second Inaugural and John F. Kennedy's first and only Inaugural. Would Obama try to do what those magnificent speeches did? I hoped so. I had no problem knowing that he would deliver his speech as only I thought he could. I know this sounds simplistic, but the words of the speech would have to carry the address. I wanted him to be his own man, much the way he was during the long, arduous campaign.

Before we look at the speech, mainly through the eyes of the press, to help understand what he said, USA Today did a word count based on the frequency of the key words in his 18-minute address. The new president used nation 15 times; America 9 times; generation 8 times; people 7 times; today 7 times: world 7 times; common 6 times; prosperity 5 times; spirit 5 time. Of themselves, each word carries its own meaning. Individually, the words still really mean little. In the context of the speech, they obviously meant much.

Consider for the moment that I am your selective RSS feed. My choices are, I like to think, representative of how some newspapers plucked phrases from the speech and the headlines they teased us with to sell their ideas.

The Associated Press is important because of the hundreds of papers and broadcast media to whom it sends its stories. It lead with the following line from his speech. "We gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord." President Obama asked the nation to unite in hope against "the gathering clouds and raging storms" of war and economic woe.

The Baltimore Sun called the speech somber. The paper said that it looked to the immediate, the pragmatic: "The world has changed and we must change with it."

The Washington Post also called the speech somber, noting that Obama signaled the need for a sharp break from the past. "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility." And, "We are ready to lead again." Finally, in a sentiment echoed in many places, to those who might harm our country, "Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

The New York Times' bold front-page headline read, "Obama Takes Oath, And Nation In Crisis Embraces The Moment." In its lead story, the paper said, "In a sober address, he vows to begin remaking the country."

The Wall Street Journal said, "The address was more prose than poetry." Importantly, for The Wall Street Journal, "Obama firmly rejected the idea that government is the problem."

The International Herald Tribune said, "President Obama used his Inaugural Address to promise the regeneration of an America many in recent years had feared lost." In the new president's words, the United States is "ready to lead once again."

The Chicago Sun-Times echoed many sentiments when it said with, "gathering clouds and raging storms . . . before the country" Obama called on citizens to "do their parts," hopefully ushering in a new era of responsibility.

Not everyone saw the speech the same way, but there was common ground in much of the analysis. Yes, a good speech, but it lacked the soaring rhetoric we came to expect from Barack Obama in the campaign. Just as well. Instead, the new president was somewhat muted and properly so because of the climate of uncertainty we are experiencing. The speech was somber, sober, and direct. It was almost quiet in its purpose to let every American, and everyone else in the world, know that America had just begun to fight. That as a people, we would have to roll up our sleeves, and rework the world to make it a better place. The speech did not soar until the final minutes. By then, President Obama had presented his wish list for America, the attitudes he hoped people would understand to get us out of the mess we, as a nation, are in. By then, with his thoughts ringing in the ears of everyone his message was clear, with what I can only call a prayer for responsibility and his plea for sacrifice by every American.

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© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks at Ron Steinman's