A lot of people have called Obama's speech "underwhelming," which, after watching it twice more, I understand: To me, most of Obama's speeches are overwhelming. In contrast, I thought his speech yesterday was nearly perfect. Although I came of voting age in the era of Clinton—which is to say, the last time people of my political persuasion really got behind a political leader—the hero-worship around Obama has always turned me off. The idea of worshiping a politician isn't just unpalatable to me, it's foreign; I can admire political leaders—I admire Obama—but I know they'll always let me down. Pleasing everybody all the time is not a part of the politician's job description.
I've always been a little cold to Obama because I feel he's never really acknowledged this—never owned his own fallibility, the fact that he will inevitably let his followers down. His speeches have always been too soaring, too capital-H historical, too full of crowd-pleasing flourishes and fillips, for my taste. Unlike the chanting, worshipful crowds, I wasn't looking for a "climactic moment"; as far as I'm concerned, "plain language"—the type of rhetoric Eli referred to as "middle-brow"—is exactly what yesterday's occasion called for. The notes Obama struck yesterday—we are a nation humbled, my predecessor has done harm to America but we will not be broken, change requires work and responsibility—were exactly the ones I wanted to hear at this moment in history.
This was my favorite part:
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less.
It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.
Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor — who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.
For us, they fought and died in places Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.
Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.
This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed.
Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.