Analysis: Glimpses, sans poetry, into his program

A world accustomed to Obama's soaring oratory probably won't remember his inaugural speech as his finest.

obama inauguration speech 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
obama inauguration speech 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
To a nation, and indeed a world, accustomed by now to the soaring oratory of US President Barack Obama, his inaugural speech probably won't be remembered as his finest. True, there were some fine turns of phrase, such as "A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous," or "We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." But the speech lacked a memorable line like Franklin D. Roosevelt's "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" in 1933, or John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you" in 1961. Granted, there were graceful images such as "rising tides of prosperity" and "still waters of peace," and stirring moments when his cadence sounded preacher-like. But Obama's inaugural address didn't live up to some of his better stump speeches, in which he spoke in elevated fashion of unity and change and the need for people to put "their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day." But those speeches were delivered when he was candidate Obama, when he was selling the country a vision. Now he is President Obama, and the weight of the world has shifted to his shoulders. Obama has to present a program, and programs are far less poetic than visions. The world, including Israel, was given a glimpse into the Obama program Tuesday night, and it largely matched expectations. He laid out these priorities in the fourth paragraph of his speech: "That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood," he said. "Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet." His two top priorities are the economy and the hot wars the US is involved in, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the only two foreign countries he mentioned by name in his address. "We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan," he said. He didn't mention Iran, China, Russia, any of the European countries - or Israel. Which doesn't mean that he has forgotten us - just that we are down on his list of priorities. Obama didn't speak specifically about our little corner of the world, but only alluded to it with sentences that obviously perked some ears in Jerusalem. "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," Obama said. "To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." This is a clear indication that the Obama doctrine for the Middle East will be decisively different from that of his predecessor. A new way forward with the Muslim world is all fine and good, from an Israeli perspective, as long as Israeli interests are not sacrificed to achieve it. Obama also gave voice in his speech to what he has already said he would do: rely more on diplomacy than the stick, saying that "earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions." Obama articulated his desire for a much more multilateral approach to problems, saying that "with old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat." Those who believe Obama's approach to Iran will center on getting the international community to apply more serious economic sanctions can find backing for this belief in that sentence. But the line that likely most pleased the ears in Jerusalem was Obama's clear indication that the US would not vacillate in its war on terrorism. "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense," he said. "And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you." To which the policymakers in Jerusalem could only answer with a single word: "Amen."