Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

An Audacious, if not Auspicious Start

The full text of the speech can found here. There were rising tides (despite his famed powers at stemming them), still waters of peace, gathering clouds, and raging storms all within the first two sentences of the first full paragraph. I’m inclined to say that this is a bit much for an opener . . . rather like a spoof of an inaugural than an actual inaugural. But I suppose such "cynicism" makes me unpopular today. Whatever. That much of it was sappy and it deserves to be called out as such; so--if no one else is--I’m happy to oblige.

Sappiness aside, Obama did have a serious purpose in view and, following those sad and sappy lines, he set to work at fulfilling it. He was there to sell his view of America--understanding, as all successful Presidents do, that the campaign to get elected must not end but, rather, transform itself into a campaign for his ideas. The work and the purpose of this speech can be found in this excerpt:

Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. [Emphasis added]
And this one:
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. [Emphasis added again].
This is key:
What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. [Emphasis mine again].

And so is this:
And those of us who manage the public’s knowledge will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched.

But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

And this:
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.
The build up to this address touted Obama’s abilities to transcend partisanship. And, in a certain sense he does. He does it, however, not by holding hands and singing Kumbaya with John McCain at a dinner last night. Rather, he transcends it by reducing the argument of his opposition to irrelevancy. Partisanship as it has been understood in the last several years is a childish thing, he asserts, not because of the vitriol leveled at Bush and the Republicans (and in some cases, too eagerly returned) but because it was foolish, to Obama’s way of thinking, for his side to bother engaging with such substandard thought. History has passed Bush and his supporters by (the ground moved under their feet, remember) so to remain there fighting with them is pointless. America is for the doers . . . so he will do. He will be the embodiment of "move on." He will stop the argument by winning it--as Charles Kesler so ably demonstrated in his analysis of Obama just before the election.

In understanding what Obama intends, we should not neglect to take note of his claim that we will "restore science to her rightful place" because Science, it seems, is understood by Obama to be the final arbiter in determining what is "childish" and what is yet still debatable and worthy in an argument. He appeals to us to be faithful to our forbears and our founding documents and especially to "the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness." But the use of "promise" is curious in this context. Jefferson called it a self-evident truth that we were so created--our equality is a fact, our duty is to recognize it. Lincoln famously called it a "proposition," i.e., it was something we had not quite lived up to recognizing at that point. In 1861, our laws claimed to support liberty because of our equality but, in fact, denied liberty to millions and, thereby, denied equality. But to now call equality not a fact demanding more than mere recognition from the law but a promise given to us by God and demanding action is something new, I think. Does he understand himself as having been chosen to fulfill God’s promise? And did God ever really make such a promise to be delivered on this earth? This seems to be a different kind of equality and it seems to demand something more than legal acknowledgment . . . it demands action and transformation and, indeed, transfiguration. "For everywhere we look, there is work to be done."

Obama began his inaugural address by noting that he is "humbled" by the work in front of him and the nation. But it will not be humility that characterizes his approach to government and governing . . . how could it be? He wrote a book about "Audacity" and he means to stick to that text, anyway.

Discussions - 14 Comments

Several small observations (from a small man),

1. Obama over and over again refered to the need for hard work, sacrifice, and striving. The stimulus bill that was unveiled by the House Democrats was the model of Big Government. We await Obama's enviormental and healthcare regulations and their attendant costs. It is smart that Obama is coupling this expansion of the power and cost of the government with some of the language of self reliance so as to limit the perception of out of control welfarism and stifling government.

2. Obama has mastered a language of religiosity that appeals to the American mainstream but does not much alienate secular liberals. Part of is the sense that the God talk is for the rubes and that the governing will be done by the sophisiticated, but there is something more there.

Obama is an epecially effective liberal politician because he can appropriate what is best about the American past without seeming shamefaced or blustery. Since the 1960s, many liberals have had a... complicated relationship with the American past. There was a sense that they could not say something nice about America (and neither could anyone else) without having to make some kind of negative statement to even things out. This led to the smug remarks about flag waving. When liberal politicians did recognize the problem, they tended to overcompensate - witness John Kerry at the 2004 convention. Obama gets the tone about right. He can mention what is good about the past without having to automatically give equal time to the worst lest someone thinks that he is too patriotic (and the reverse is true in mentioning what is worst in our history). Obama comes across as feeling like neither an undeserving and guilty beneficiary of our nation's sins, nor as a resentful victim and that it a huge boon to his political persona.

Auditioning for a gig at The Nation, Julie?

I actually read it differently. I'm all for responsibility. But people can only be responsible when they are free to suffer the consequences of their mistakes. Similarly, they can only be responsible when they have to pay their own way in life. That's why I think that, as much as possible, the changes in our health care system ought to be designed to have people pay as much as possible before turning to collective payment for expensive items. Simiarly, politicians and businessmen who break the rules ought to be punished. Who is against that? Finally, science does deserve to lead. Reason ought to direct the passions. All reasonable people ought to recognize that the fact/ value distinction is bunk. Hence the modern sciences are rightly under the direction of reason in its proper sense. And finally, I agree that citizenship is essential. But for citizenship to matter, participation in elections and government must matter. That's why, as much as possible, laws ought to be made and enforced locally. Etc. In short, I am entirely comfortable with the grounds of debate President Obama has chosen.

Perfect observations from Pete.

Kesler from NRO

The Reverend Joseph Lowery stole the rhetorical show, but President Obama’s speech was interesting, dignified, and unmemorable, like so many inaugural addresses. That does not mean it was unimportant. As a speech it had a few clumsy moments when it strained for effect, but it is part of the new president’s oratorical skill to leave you thinking better of the speech because he gave it. His demeanor and delivery elevated it above the rather ordinary level of its political tropes and themes. A new era of responsibility? George W. Bush already called for that in 2001, as did Bill Clinton before him. Put the stale ideological debates of the past behind us? Ditto Bush, Clinton (remember the Third Way?), and even Michael Dukakis (“competence, not ideology”), though not, thank goodness, in an actual inaugural speech. But the crucial political effect was on the listeners’ emotions. Obama intends to take back patriotism, and to a lesser extent religion, for the Left. That’s the meaning of his ostentatious embrace of the Founding Fathers and American history in general. This will be a transformed patriotism, of course, but its emotional roots are old or traditional, and by weaving together the old and the new he hopes to succeed, as he likes to prophesy, in “remaking” America. This was FDR’s strategy, too, and his famous pragmatism, echoed in Obama’s loyalty to what “works,” was in service to a bold ideological agenda. Just like Obama’s is. Give him credit, though, for not playing the Lincoln card wantonly and for treating with grace the civil rights’ and voting rights’ revolutions that he embodies.

I found Lowry's benediction trite (to say the least), in its racial references, but Charles is correct in his overall assessment: the audacity of moderation.

and another thing,

The more I think about Obama's speech the more annoyed I become. The stuff about responsibility and sacrifice sounds more about paying higher taxes, obeying more government rules, and paying higher prices while ignoring bad economic performance. It will be up to conservatives to point out that most people will be doing the paying and sacrificing and that Obama and his political allies will mostly be aggrandized by these changes.

What also struck me is Obama's imposture. His tranpartisanship is really just his will and his idea of unity really just the ignoring of his critics. I have huge respect for Obama's political skills and from what I can tell I like him as a guy, but he really is just a factional and ideological figure. Conservatives need to find a way to bring his persona back to earth. The McCain campaign did it for a moment with the celebrity ad, but what was striking was the Obama camaigns inability to deal with a situation in which their guy was seen as a mere mortal among mortals. At every point, conservatives need to point out that Obama's anwers are merely Obama's answers (not holy writ or science) and self interested and destructive to boot. And they ought to do it with some humor. Obama's first instinct seems to be to dismiss. Work with that. A little folksiness (though not of a too rural kind, there is such a thing as urbane folksiness)might be the thing to deflate Obama's posture that that he can merely assert what he should prove and that he can get away with ignoring what he should confront.

Conservatives are upset with his speech because he did not announce that this was the communist states of america or that he did not announce sharia law, which is what their rhetoric suggested.

After that miserable campaign, the right is telegraphing every sickening ploy and Rovian maneuver. That is what those millions were there for on the mall, not FOR Obama but against Bush and the vile, sickening nihilism of the right. They have spent all their ammunition - No 'fred thompson' fake folksiness or hannity hatred can help them now.

Ren: Liberalism is a mental illness and you are a poster child for it. Calm down, have a drink, doobie or something. There is just too much anger here. Your guy won - have a great day for at least one day. You must be exhausted.

I'm somewhere between Kesler's judgment that he strategically deflated the rhetoric, and Morel's below that he simply ran of gas, had something of writer's block this time. Particularly interesting is Morel's suggestion that Obama is getting bored of stately-Obama-rhetoric. I sure know I am...

Side-note. I get very uncomfortable when right-wingers say the U.S. is a "Christian Nation," but there is something to that statement, whereas the following statement, while not factually untrue, is in its basic suggestion preposterous: "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth." Yeah, that's who we are.

It's only tiresome to object to this because so many Americans tiresomely say some such thing every day.

Enough for now, gotta get back to to this vital book I'm reading: Great Hindu Political Thinkers in American History.


Well stated--I too tire of the "right-wingers" who make such claims. They actually harm conservatism and any political gains (electoral wins) the right might make when they make such claims.

BTW: Working on my book this week (on a series the slave debates in the 1830s), I was much surprised to see that the "Hindoo" was referenced in many odd and interesting ways--like that they may be at home here given our country's dedication to religious freedom--of course they, unlike Obama, were making the case for a laws of nature and Nature's God as the reason for such freedom (that is, our natural equality).

One of my favorite former colleagues was a Hindu woman born in London, a former U.S. Marine and U of Chicago poly sci grad student and a lawyer. Tough-minded conservative. A brigade (maybe a platoon) of such Hindoos will crush all the noo voodoo.

The problem isn't so much multiculturalism but a failure to see its connection to American patriotism. Obama is ahead in this game, and conservatives are slow to catch on and catch up. Obama gets it wrong--Lincolnian conservatives need to demonstrate the difference.

Just to be clear, I was complaining about Obama's statement--i.e., his statement definitely does NOT capture who we are. Those mouthing the "Christian Nation" slogan bug me, but they actually are closer to the truth about who we are than Obama is.

Julie, do you think that humility characterized Bush's approach to government and governing? If no, why was lack of humility acceptable then, but not now? If yes, are you serious?

Carl: I understand. They are closer, fully agreed.

I was thinking of those like Huckabee who in some way despise who we are--wanting to create a new Christian country that conforms to their brand of Christianity.

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