CEOs are being graded these days, though not always too stiffly in my estimation. If college athletes are graded on their off-campus conduct, quite a few head coaches must be grading on the curve.
President Obama received a high grade last November, or maybe we should just say he got the highest score. Even so, his performance grading began anew the day of his inauguration. The 2014 mid-term elections will definitely be a grading of the president. If Republicans hold the U.S. House, their victory will constitute a low grade for the president. Whether or not he will care about improving the grade is a different matter.
Since the president touts “fairness” as a supreme, national value, let’s honor that vague value for a moment as we grade his inaugural address. The only fair way to grade him is to compare his address to those of his predecessors in, say, content and rhetoric. Let’s stand him beside Washington, Lincoln, FDR, Reagan, and Clinton — two Democrats, two Republicans, and one non-party president.
Regarding content, one common characteristic of the inaugural addresses of these five presidents was the cultivation of an attitude or national spirit that was directed not to their political base, but to the citizenry as a whole. Typically the greatest inaugural speeches have not attempted to generate support for particular policy, but to rally all Americans back to what it means to be an American and to encourage the continuation of Americanism.
In his address last week, President Obama obviously by design rose to no such heights. Instead, his intent and content were political and his rhetoric was edgy.
In campaign mode, he reached out to feminists by referring to Seneca Falls, site of the 1848 New York women’s convention that initiated the feminist movement. No particular problem here, since this gathering did much for women, radical feminism notwithstanding.
For gays, however he referred to Stonewall, site of a pure barroom brawl in 1969 in Lower Manhattan to which police were called and at which several gay men were killed. Giving this three-day brawl the same significance as the Edmund Pettus Bridge incident in Selma, Ala., is a problem.
If the president desires to unite a nation, why would he set sail on a second term by pressing the issues of gay marriage, climate change and entitlements, all issues on which Americans are extremely divided?
Compare the president’s content, tone, and rhetorical intention to that of Washington in 1796: “To any government, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” To Lincoln in 1867: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” To FDR in 1937: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” To Reagan in 1985 (repeating himself from his first inaugural): “Government is not our master; it is our servant.” To Clinton in 1997: “Americans want a government that is smaller and lives within its means.”
In laying out his progressive agenda, the president, who is as capable with language as anyone else, chose to ignore the spirit of Lincoln’s other exquisite injunction: that Americans must follow “the better angels of our nature.” He calmed no fears as FDR did, acknowledged no heartening limitations on government power as Reagan did, and purported no practical, pragmatic view of government’s role as even his most recent Democratic predecessor Clinton did.
Constant assertiveness is the president’s way, yet constant assertiveness is often an indication of weakness or a sign of no self-confidence in one’s persuasive abilities. Either way, it plays out as bullying, producing frosty relationships with those with whom the president must work, i.e., the other elected branch of government, the Congress.
As doctrinaire as were FDR and Reagan, they were never ideological bullies. Their way was friendly persuasion, a high road that Mr. Obama cannot attain. He has the smile, but not the willingness to listen.
To this unfortunate fact we must add that America actually has a shadow president. His name is David Axelrod, the president’s two-time political director. And the president has a shadow cabinet. It is his political campaign team which he recently and openly elevated to adviser status. So much for a presidential cabinet that is approved by the Senate.
The good news is that lame duck-ness sets in early. The president has hardly a year to advance his initiatives and function successfully. After that time, even his own party has a chance to pull away from him and become more centrist. If this happens, he can partially credit it to a speech that was full of finger-in-your-eye instead of the hope in our hearts that was promised.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.