With one day’s worth of hindsight

WITH ONE DAY’S WORTH OF HINDSIGHT…. I was talking to someone last night about Barack Obama’s inaugural address, with my friend criticizing it while I defended it. He challenged me to recite, from memory, one sentence — a full sentence — from the speech, just eight hours after it had been delivered. I couldn’t, which he saw as evidence of a missed opportunity.

With the discussion still on my mind, I went back and watched the speech again today, and was even more impressed with the address the second time. James Fallows suggests this might be a common response.

Several of Barack Obama’s big rhetorical performances have been recognized as hits from the minute he stepped off the stage. His 2004 Democratic convention speech is one example. His Philadelphia speech on race, which quelled the Rev. Wright controversy last spring, is another.

In many other cases, especially late in the campaign, the red-hots among his supporters thought he had “underperformed” or been “just so-so” immediately after an event, only to see the days-later and weeks-later reaction to the performance turn much more positive. The clearest example was his first debate with John McCain, where supporters thought he had missed chances to go in for the kill — but over time it was clear that he had established his steady, gravitas-worthy persona.

I think his inaugural speech will be in this second category. Now that I have a chance to look at some blog-world commentary, I see that some is underwhelmed, as after the first debate. I think that the speech was in fact very well-pitched to this moment in history and the messages Obama wants and needs to send. That is, both artful and useful.

To be sure, I can think of various speeches from the campaign that I enjoyed more from a partisan/ideological perspective, but watching it again today, I was reminded about the qualitative differences between, say, a speech at the Democratic convention and a presidential inaugural address. The speech after Obama’s victory in the Iowa caucus, or the “Yes We Can” speech in South Carolina, were uplifting campaign oratory that made me want to vote for the man, but yesterday wasn’t about that.

Kevin Drum’s take rings true for me: “If I had to describe the speech in a word, I’d call it ‘workmanlike,’ and maybe that’s exactly what Obama wanted it to be. After all, his steady theme, both yesterday and for the past couple of months, has been that his administration will be one that buckles down and gets to work from Day 1. Memorable would have just gotten in the way.”