Obama's Inauguration Speech

Jan 20, 2009

I thought the inauguration was pretty interesting. I don’t think that it’ll go down as one of the great speeches of history, but it was good. It started off pretty slow, with a fair amount of rhetoric that didn’t seem to tie together very much, but it picked up toward the middle. I was also struck by a few specific moments.

When listing religious affiliations, Obama listed Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, paused for a moment as if he were done, and then said, “and non-believers”. This surprised quite a few people it seemed (and was the only line that triggered a sizeable cheer in my office). Having the President recognize the existence of atheists is almost unheard of, and really gives me confidence that he actually does believe in supporting everyone, despite the fact that inequality towards atheists still seems to be politically acceptable.

Obama also invoked science explicitly, saying that the administration will “restore science to its rightful place”, and later counted “curiosity” among the values our nation’s success depends on. I can’t agree more that the eminence of the United States is due far more to its significant advancements in science and technology than on its particular accidents of religious history (as other administrations have seemed to feel), and that scientific capability is one of the finest products of a free society and one of the first to be diminished when our freedom is curtailed. Restoring the nation’s freedom to pursue truth is an investment in our prosperity that will pay off for decades.

And while the speech is unlikely to be invoked during future inaugurations, I think there were two lines that had potency that will last beyond today, both having to do with foreign policy: his admonition to nations that blame their ills on the West that they should “know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy” and his mention to oppressive regimes that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”. These are the kinds of lines that I love, and can have a lasting effect on the world.

The ending, I thought, was lackluster. Most of Obama’s speeches have a strong arc with a flourish at the end, bringing everything together, but this one stayed steady throughout, covering one topic after another. That makes sense, given its purpose, but it made it less of an experience.

Altogether, though, a solid start to what will hopefully be an inspiring administration.