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Group Therapy: President Obama’s Inauguration
Photo by Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune.
As a reformed perfectionist, I was not upset to observe that Barack Obama’s first day as President did not come off without a hitch. Chief Justice John Roberts muffed the Presidential Oath, Aretha forgot some lyrics, and the Dow Jones plunged 4 percent, one of the largest losses ever on Inauguration Day. None of this, however, dampened the spirit of the millions gathered or tuned-in to witness history. With his intelligence, grace, and gravitas, Barack Obama restored a measure of dignity, decorum, and even awe to the office of President.
Photo by Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune.
Yet, the honeymoon will be short, and Obama knows this. His Inaugural Address was a set piece in the form of a jeremiad—a lamentation of woes with a proffer of hope in a tradition of sermons stretching back to the Puritan divines of the 17thcentury. America is in a crisis, a crisis caused by the greed and irresponsibility of some, and a larger collective failure of will and preparation. Obama issued a call to action: “everywhere we look there is work to be done.” He enjoined us to return to our core values or truths, which he lists as hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, and loyalty and patriotism. Like Jonathan Edwards’ audience in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” we have deviated from our path, and have been called to task for it. In referencing George Washington, Obama burnished our republican (not Republican) past, and challenged us to reclaim it.
Photo by Doug Mills/The New York Times.
Some critics considered the address to be too sober and somber. Others lauded the performance, praising Obama for restraint and plain speaking. One writer raved that “political language was restored to its greatest value—saying what the speaker means.” Hopefully, this quality of directness will define Obama’s administration. Given that he has long shown a ministerial cadence and sense of purpose, I was not surprised by the structure of the address. I see nothing wrong with a much-needed kick in the pants. The problem is that the jeremiad is an inherently conservative vehicle, designed to support the social order and not to question fundamentals, and Obama’s message is fundamentally one of change. Whether this is a matter of semantics will be seen as he implements policy and governs.
On a more important note, Michael Smith was chosen to redecorate the White House, and the Obamas announced that they would make use of works by American artists and furnishings that are generally affordable. We will see how this turns out, but if the Obamas’ Hyde Park apartment (see the 1996 photo) is any indication, they will walk the walk as well as talk the talk, and their surroundings will be as graceful and straightforward as their manner.
So it has been, so it must be…
Photo by Mariana Cook/The New Yorker 1996.