Studying Obama's Rhetoric

The change from President Obama's campaign rhetoric to his presidential rhetoric is striking. The change was, in fact, so abrupt that the vast crowd seemed largely puzzled by it, and applause was neither frequent nor greatly animated—even though the pilgrims on the cold two-mile Mall seemed ready to burst out with emotion. The presidential Inaugural was quite conservative in its vision of "revolution," in the distinctly American way. For us, from the beginning, revolution has always meant re-volution, from the Latin for "turn back to one's beginnings" as a wheel turns around from top to bottom and back to the top again. The reason Americans do this is that they love this nation's first principles, the origin of its idealism and its energy. As the motto on the Seal of the United States says, "Annuit Coeptis," that is, "Providence smiled on our beginnings or, better, on the principles in which we were conceived."

President Obama's rhetoric about these first principles had the ring of a political conservative—its emphasis upon founding principles, tradition, patriotism, courage, honesty, and responsibility. His rhetoric was not nearly so much Big-Government oriented as his campaign speech had been. He praised the market as having no peer in its ability to favor the creation of new wealth and the expansion of liberty. He seemed to set both government and the market as co-equals. The principle he chose for giving priority, case by case, to one dynamism or the other was "what works."

His turn of thought and phrase here was, it seemed to me, a good deal more Burkean than most of today's liberals know how to feel and speak. He did not show quite the fear of the self-aggrandizement of government that conservatives have traditionally invoked, in order to encourage vigilance. But he was far more cautious than utopian liberals about how well the government can actually function.

The address itself was far more pedestrian than I had expected, far less given to stirring utopian flights than his campaign speeches generally were. It was often given to easy clichés—about shadows, storms, and onward marches despite the odds. There were a few quite eloquent passages as the Address approached its conclusion, passages summoning witnesses from the past to stir contemporary hearts with love for first principles and for personal responsibility.

I suspect that the address did more to reassure conservatives than to excite liberals; and that those farther left might have felt the stirrings of anxiety about it.

Rhetorically, at least, between election day on the first Tuesday of November and his swearing in on the third Tuesday of January, Obama has made quite a turn in the direction of realism, and away from his earlier soaring utopianism.

On these points, there may be a churning interior struggle in his own heart.

Published in National Review Online's Blog The Corner January 20, 2009