President Obama has a reputation for eloquence. Even many of his political opponents acknowledge this supposed fact. In 2008, I was inclined to moderate agreement with the general consensus; although it would have been a stretch to say that his speeches had any literary value, neither did they contain patently hackneyed expressions, awkward sentence constructions, or offensive jingles. His second inaugural address, however, fails spectacularly on all counts.
Listening to his speech was nothing less than an ordeal. Although I could say much more about the performance (in particular, about his habit of switching in and out of falsetto as a substitute for genuine emotion), I will limit my criticism to the words themselves. This does not reflect my opinion about his policies — some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t — unless you stretch the meaning of “policy” broadly enough to include hiring a new speechwriter.
“Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.”
This is a bizarre image: politicians at a committee meeting, determining what kinds of technology and institutions are necessary to sustain a “modern economy.”
“Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character.”
I was not aware that the national character of the American people was reducible to a mathematical formula. I hope he follows up on this claim by telling us whether or not the function observes strict concavity and whether or not it is defined on a compact set.
“America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention.”
America’s “possibilities are limitless”? Talk about a hackneyed expression. I’m also alarmed by the idea that Americans have an “endless capacity for risk.”
“We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.”
Besides the awkward grammatical mismatch between “every person” and “their work,” this sentence stands out because of the curious notion of being “liberated from the brink.”
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
I was not aware that it was possible to betray people who haven’t been born.
“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”
I’m imagining Obama’s speechwriter sitting at his desk with a portrait of his fourth grade homeroom teacher on the wall, remembering the teacher’s inspirational claim that adjectives are the literary equivalent of a sparkling rainbow. I can also imagine this speechwriter giving up on finding a good adjective to describe storms and settling for “powerful.”
“We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries — we must claim its promise.”
I’m baffled by the idea that green technology will drive future economic development. As far as I can tell, this technology is inefficient and therefore unprofitable. The only way it could be profitable would be if the government passed legislation making it impossible for companies to avoid using this technology without running afoul of federal regulations — wait, Sherlock, maybe that’s the idea!
“Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright.”
How exactly does joy inspire awe?
“With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”
Another curious image: someone carrying light. A torch can be carried; light cannot — unless our understanding of physics has radically changed since I was in junior high school.