And because of the tradition of momentous inaugural addresses accompanying momentous national transitions...
And because we so badly need such words and the powerful ideas behind them at the time of this particular momentous transition...
And because this was such a grand opportunity to launch a new direction in our politics, governance and community...
Admittedly, my expectations were very high – perhaps unfairly so. Had George W. Bush or even John Kerry delivered the very same speech, I might have been rather impressed.
Moreover, I am loathe to micro-criticize this well-intentioned president, beginning literally with his first minutes in office. He deserves much better than that, and so do we.
Obama speaks in rather vague generalities that allow his audience to project onto him much of what they choose to. I assume that, smart as he is, he does this on purpose, since he can thus benefit from winning their support without leaving himself pinned to commitments he may wish to avoid at a later date. That’s the mark of a skilled politician, but I don’t mean that as a compliment. It’s not the mark of a leader, it’s not the mark of the bold, and it’s not the mark of the moral.
The line from the speech I found most compelling was a case in point concerning his (intentional?) ambiguity. When he spoke about putting away childish things, that could have meant many things. If it had a particular meaning at all, I don’t think he meant it the way I wish he had. His reference was probably to the petty partisanship in Washington that he seeks to rise above during his presidency. I sure don’t have a problem with most of that concept, and I have no doubt that’s a winning theme with the majority of Americans. It’s just that a significant part of the disputes we’ve witnessed are real fights over real issues, and what we don’t need right now is for the Tom Daschles and Harry Reids of this world to all hold hands with regressive predators in the name of all getting along well on Sunday morning talk shows.
I’m not sure anyone would have been well served by Obama describing in detail the nightmare of our present circumstances, and naming the names of the folks most responsible for our condition, and this he largely did not do, except rather obliquely. It’s not in his nature, and it would not have served his purposes, for if there’s anything he appears to want to be from what we’re seeing of him, it’s a conciliator. Of course, his interests and the country’s are not necessarily the same thing. Personally, I don’t think conciliation at all costs is appropriate, especially now. If, for example, conciliation meant continuing in Iraq or Guantánamo, I say forget it. Even so, and even with all the bitterness within me, I didn’t feel the need for him to trash talk the little prince sitting right behind him. Now, on the other hand, if Obama wants to deploy his Justice Department in a series of criminal investigations of the Bush administration, that’s another thing...
I also can’t imagine an American president in 2008 being able to say to the world, “Sorry, man, we really screwed up”, as much as I suspect the new president probably believes that. Indeed, not only was there no comment of that ilk, but there was instead the obligatory macho rumblings from the helm of the insecure superpower. Even this may be advisable, if words are the cheap price that must be paid to keep the discredited right discredited. For surely if anything one-hundredth the magnitude of 9/11 were to happen on his watch, these great patriots will lunge to eviscerate Obama for his dangerous naivete and pacifism, even if he hadn’t ignored warnings about the incident and chosen to stay on vacation the month prior.
So what did happen in this speech? Two related things, I’d say, principally. First, there was a re-centering of American politics. I feel a bit sorry for young people who have effectively only ever known George W. Bush as their president. They’ve never had a model of something better in their lifetimes. Even still, they knew something was seriously, sickeningly wrong with their government. What they might not have been able to see, however, was the degree to which Bush was an aberration from a consensus that has long existed in American politics. Republican or Democratic administration, there’s been a shared sensibility, a shared set of boundaries, within which American government has operated for nearly a century now, with only the partial exception of Lil’ Bush’s forebear, Ronald Reagan.
Bush was the only sustained aberration to that consensus, and bringing the 19th (if not the 13th) century back to life in the 21st was, of course, just as disastrous as any intelligent being might have predicted – and many of us did. Much of Obama’s speech was a reminder of those boundaries and the hard-gained wisdom associated with their acquisition over centuries of experience. He talked about how government is neither all bad nor all good, how the market can be beneficial but only within limits, how our ideals, liberties and rights need not be sacrificed to maintain our security, how our power abroad is based on more than the size of our military arsenal.
Whodathunkit, eh? Mixed economy, guaranteed freedoms, good relations abroad. What a concept, huh? Back in the hazy, distant past of 2000, we thought we had learned these lessons for the rest of time. But what we’ve learned instead from Bush and Cheney is just how tenuous those principles really are. It was therefore right and proper that Obama devoted a portion of his inaugural speech to reacquainting us with our better angels, so long on holiday of late.
The president’s second theme was to issue in his speech a rather tepid call to arms, a rallying cry to bring the country together to collectively address a national crisis or six. This was right and necessary, but it was probably wholly insufficient.
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