Heilemann: Obama’s Spare Inaugural Rhetoric Signals Strategic Mastery

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Barack Obama’s election against daunting odds was a testament to many things, but not least his remarkable capacity to rock the mike. On Tuesday, he delivered the most watched, most anticipated, most historically significant speech of his life in front of a crowd so massive and so joyous that it took your breath away. Immediately beforehand came the swearing-in, which was a sublime thing, engendering even in his critics and partisan adversaries a feeling of national pride — and providing his fans with a rush of satisfaction and and jolt of pure exhilaration.

Yet the speech that followed was less than thrilling in itself, perhaps by design. Its structure was formal, classical, the substance largely abstract. There were no anecdotes or narratives, personal or otherwise. There were few rhetorical flourishes, no gratuitous bids for Barletts. The language was spare, at times even pedestrian — telling Americans that "we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America," for example.

And though the speech was by no means pessimistic, its optimism was balanced by a cold-eyed realism — and plenty of hard talk about not taking short cuts, a crisis brought on by greed and irresponsibility, and a collective failure to make hard choices. The political purpose of all this is easy enough to see: Obama is preparing the country for tough trade-offs down the line. (And if he's serious about reforming entitlements, you can certainly see the logic of laying down that predicate.) But it's certainly not the kind of language that caused so many hearts to flutter during his campaign.

More familiar to them will have been Obama's focus on another set of choices: the false ones that have gripped our politics lo these many years. He listed three: between whether "government is too big or too small"; between whether "the market is a force for good or ill"; between "our safety and our ideals." Obama's contention that these "stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply" is not surprising. It's at the core of his attempt to define himself as an apostle of pragmatism, to transcend the hoary partisan and ideological divisions that he's long cited as central to the dysfunction of Washington.

But it's also clear in all three cases that his implicit critique is stronger of one side than the other; that the reflexive small-government crowd, the market fundamentalists, and those who believe that national security requires the trampling of the Constitution are the ones more dangerously under the spell of idiotic dogma. Indeed, you could read this triad as a thinly veiled critique of the now-departed (whew, that feels good to write) Bush administration. And that's precisely what many liberals did — along with thrilling, not unreasonably, at Obama's acknowledgment of "non-believers" as being a vital part of the American fabric.

There was also much in the speech, however, to please conservatives. The focus on responsibility, duty, service, and sacrifice. The invocations of Scripture (Obama mentioned the deity thrice). The absence of any kind of dreamy, bridge-to-the-21st-century-style futurism, and instead a constant grounding in history. The invocation of firemen and servicemen as heroes. And, toward the end, a riff that could have easily been uttered by Ronald Reagan, or even Bush: "For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies ... Those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true."

Some might argue that Obama's grand project involves reclaiming language like that from the right. Others might say that the fact that both liberals and conservatives could find things to cheer in his inaugural address demonstrates that he remains a cipher — or at least a mystery. My own view is that it's another sign that Obama enters the White House playing the game at a very high level strategically. He understands, as he has all along, that cohesion and compromise are what the country wants — and what he will need if he's going to tackle the multiplicity of crises that now officially belong to him. In the conduct of his transition and in how he and his team have been dealing with Capitol Hill, Obama is striving to position himself as the head of a kind of national-unity government.

Even in less dire circumstances, unification is what inaugurals are all about. And at a moment like this, the imperative is only that much greater. His speech yesterday may not have been his prettiest or most intoxicating. But it may wind up serving a higher, more noble purpose: contributing to a climate where it's possible to get shit done.