Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The People Versus the Occasion?

The editors of The New York Times used their Room for Debate blog to harvest an "Experts' Critique" of Barack Obama's Inaugural Address. As of my reading this morning, this post had accumulated 340 comments, which is exactly the sort of engagement that I had so much wanted to see on the Web site (and never did). As I see it, the mere fact that such conversations have emerged among Times readers (in the same spirit in which they emerge regularly over on Truthdig) may well be a sign that there are plenty of Americans out there ready, willing, and able to respond to Obama's injunction for us to work together to recover from the problems that now confront us. That theme was certainly present in the Address; and, whether or not the text had been composed "with an eye toward Bartlett’s" (as William Safire put it in his contribution to the critique, while also recognizing "the towering expectations whipped up" by the media), what I found most important was the extent to which Obama was willing to be up-front about how working together would not be a pleasant walk in the park. If the media feed off of expectations, then Obama certainly got off on the right foot by emphasizing the need for better expectation management.

As to the critique itself, the Times collected an interesting panel:

In other words this was very much an assembly of "technical experts;" but, whatever their professional standards may have been, the variations in both style and substance were strikingly disconcerting. They ran the gamut from a few comments that read like gratuitous throw-aways to the kind of comprehensive coverage we have come to expect from Safire, whatever we may feel about his politics.

Beyond the analysis, however, I was most taken with Cary's statement of her preference for Sunday's speech at the Lincoln Memorial. I suspect that Safire could have exercised an alternative repertoire of analytical techniques in comparing these two speeches, rather than comparing Obama's Inaugural to those of past Inaugurations. Lacking Safire's skill, I would only suggest that the difference in occasion would have provided the reason for a different analytical approach. Sunday was an occasion of, by, and for "we the people;" and Obama's speech was effectively directed at "we the people," all of whom had been suitably prepared by the entertainment program. The Inauguration was an entirely different affair. Once again, "we the people" turned out in large numbers, just of the sake of "being there," even if "there" was in a crowd watching a large television monitor; but this time, strictly speaking, they were not "the audience." This time the audience was the legacy of history, embodied by a relatively exclusive sample of dignitaries; and, even if Obama did not go "off message" in this setting, there was a faint sense of constraint in his rhetorical strategies that had been absent on Sunday. He had not really given such a speech in the past, because he had not previously been required (by protocol if by nothing else) to address the occasion itself, which was quite another matter from addressing the people who had made that occasion possible.

Nevertheless, that sense of constraint was not particularly strong. For most of "we the people," Obama was still speaking to us. If he sounded a bit more formal than usual, well, everything else about the occasion was far more formal than any previous setting for one of his speeches. If it was fundamentally "all about the occasion," then there is no doubt that he rose to that occasion, leaving us all confident that he was more the prepared to face his first full day at his new job.

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