Tomorrow brings one of the great traditions in the ongoing experiment of American democracy, the swearing in of the executive leader of the country to an oath binding them to the formative and enduring principles of the nation. From General Washington’s first ceremony in 1789 in New York City, to the elevation of the Senator from Illinois in 2009 to the position of President, the ceremony has survived war, weather, national schism, and depression to create a brief coming together of the nation’s leaders and people to celebrate the uniting force of the Constitution’s means of political peaceful succession.
It has produced unique moments of history. William Henry Harrison in 1841, attempting to overcome the caricature that at 69 he was too old for the job, delivered a two hour 8000 word stem-winder of a speech in miserably cold and rainy weather that proved his physical endurance to all present, but managed to inject the pneumonia that lead to his death within a month. President Lincoln in 1865 created in brevity what Harrison could only dream about in his extended comments, a masterpiece of poetic majesty that has set the standard for all to follow. The oath of office has been typically delivered by the Chief Justice of the United States, with Chief Justice John Marshall administering 9 oaths from 1801 to 1833, making Marshall the shepard of Presidents from the founding moments of the nation through its infancy and adolescence. The Capitol has been the traditional home of the ceremony, with both the East and more recently the West Porticos creating the backdrop of the immense prestige of the moment.
President Obama’s first inaugural of 2009 in retrospect foreshadowed the many contradistinctions of this still ill-defined figure. The candidate Obama had campaigned on the concepts of a “purple” nation, grown beyond the political divisions of “red” and “blue” states to work together to address the nation’s challenges. Many predicted a speech of elevated and poetic muse to focus the nation, in keeping with the assumed intellectual brilliance of the individual that had just been elected. His campaign rhetoric had been delivered in epic forums, the most spectacular, the Denver convention acceptance speech, delivered with the backdrop of Olympian columns in front of tens of thousands of adorational listeners, moved to tears by the moment more than the rhetoric.
Instead, the speech exposed the nation to many of the Obamian impulses that developed as his signature. The use of a teleprompter creating a rather flat delivery, as if the speech was to be read rather than delivered. The petty trashing of those that had come before him to the responsibilities of the office, as if his mere presence would change the fractious nature of politics. The disturbing repetitive use of cliches and tired language in the speech that created an atmosphere of superficiality and lack of depth of understanding or commitment to real solutions, with clumsy text like “rising tides”, “gathering storms”, “nagging fears”, and “icy currents”. Claims regarding rock bed personal principles of a new era of responsibility that stood in absolute contradistinction to later actions – “a recognition on the part of every American that those of us who manage our nation’s dollars will be held to account”. The lack of definitive framing of core convictions that would suggest a road map to the nation’s triumph over adversity.
The enormity of accomplishment of the nation overcoming its past in electing a person of color to the highest office lead to a celebration of great intensity in 2009 and resulted in the glossing over of the many flaws of this individual as an executive and constructive leader over the coming years. The re-election in 2012, while affirming the nation’s victory over prejudice, has re-enforced the collective impulse to forgive amateurish skill sets in this President that are leading to some real calamities. The ‘responsibility’ President has presided over the greatest spiral of unsupported spending and growth of government in history. An ongoing tendency to distance himself from the process of political compromise and paint his opponents in ever starker language of division has created an acid environment that threatens the country’s growing need for consensus in overcoming formidable economic challenges. A thin skin and righteousness about his own supposed superior intellect leaves little room for other intellectual arguments and a healthy diversity of political creativity. A disturbing disdain for the fundamentals of the Constitution to which he has sworn to uphold, has projected itself in neglecting budgetary responsibilities, processes of appointment, and a blatant avoidance in the enforcement of current laws already approved through the democratic process.
The second inauguration of a President always celebrates the triumph of vision of the first administration of the individual, but notably injects the inevitable waning of persuasive influence of the President as the lame duck status of the political entity is immediate with the oath of office. President Obama is unique in his view of his position in history and capacities of his office. Tomorrow I suspect the words he will emote will simply re-enforce my view of him as a detached figure from his nation’s challenges, who seeks to bend the narrative of history to his liking, without outlining a constructive vision and process to the nation’s future that includes all Americans and the unique story of our success.
Nothing would please me more than to turn out to be wrong regarding this man, but I’m not about to hold my breath. The country gets a chance tomorrow to celebrate a great theme of history, but I don’t expect to hear the rhythms and call to unity and greatness that once echoed from that storied spot on the Capitol’s West portico:
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
“To those new States whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom—and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”
“So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
John F Kennedy 1.20.1961