For the next week, the press and pundits will talk all about the historical importance of Barack Obama's inaugural address. And, based on his past rhetorical performances, it should be a great one.
But, alas for him and for them, it doesn't really matter. Inaugural addresses are an anachronism. Yes, they once meant a lot. And many of our most-treasured political axioms derive from inaugural addresses. Franklin D. Roosevelt told the nation at his first inaugural that it had nothing to fear but fear itself. Abraham Lincoln, at his second, spoke of the coming post–Civil War healing that he hoped would display malice toward none and charity for all.
But those speeches were in the days before television, when Americans heard from their presidents much less frequently and regular presidential appearances hadn't become a kind of TV show in their own right.
In truth, it's been almost a half-century since anyone said anything memorable in an inaugural speech — John F. Kennedy with his "Ask not what your country can do for you" oration in 1961, right before TV became a dominant force in our national life. Perhaps recognizing the obsolete nature of the whole exercise since, even our greatest post-JFK rhetorical president, Ronald Reagan, never bothered to display his best stuff on January 20 — reserving it for other, more memorable occasions. Showing a true understanding of the media culture, the one memorable thing Reagan did do at inaugural time was to flip the coin from the Oval Office the night before his swearing-in (in 1985) to open that year's Super Bowl. How many more people watched the coin flip rather than the inaugural speech? Oh, only about 80 million or so.
The major problem with an inauguration speech, of course, is that it isn't delivered in prime time, so few actually hear it. If Obama really wanted his words to reach the masses — and give the nation a change they could believe in, if only because they'd actually experience it — he'd move his address to the evening (much like the World Series and so many other events have done), and then do his serious partying at the inaugural balls afterward.
But that isn't the only problem. The setting for the speech — on the steps of the US Capitol — is majestic, but it's also very cold and the elements are uncontrollable. There's a reason most TV shows are shot in California or in studios, and most Super Bowls are held in warm-weather locales or indoors.
That's why the State of the Union ranks as the more important occasion — with the ratings to prove it. It's held at 9 pm EST — prime time in most of the country. And its indoor, equally majestic setting is every bit as compelling as anything inauguration day has to offer.
The other problem for Obama next week is that no one single speech can be that important anymore. That's because Americans now see their president all the time, thanks to cable TV and Internet news, which broadcast around the clock.