Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Inaugural Address

The Inaugural Address

It almost didn’t matter what he said. The very fact of him, a young African-American, standing there, said it all. The speech was a success before he opened his mouth.

Nevertheless, I was disappointed. I wanted the soaring rhetoric he is famous for, something that acknowledged the significance of the moment. Instead, we got a fairly pedestrian speech, albeit finely crafted.

Mr. Obama opened with thinly veiled words of criticism for G.W. Bush’s administration, as if he, Obama had been holding back a steaming kettle of Pelosi-esque disgust and derision until the very first moment when he could let the whistle sound without being inappropriate. He emphasized that his administration, only minutes old, was an about face. “From this moment on,” he would reject the idea that our ideals (e.g., constitutional rights) must be sacrificed for safety. He would replace the politics of fear-mongering with the politics of hope. He pointed a blaming finger at the "greed and irresponsibility of some" and said that a free market economy must be well-regulated if there is to be prosperity for more than the prosperous few. He will "restore science to its rightful place." And so on. It was a scathing indictment delivered with feeling.

Abruptly, Mr. Obama changed direction and spoke about his awareness of the many sacrifices that have gone before us. He spoke of George Washington, our forefathers, the defenders of American freedom through history, and so on. It was standard history book stuff, although he alluded to the fact that our history has a dark side too. Slavery and the civil war were mentioned. He asked us to choose “our better history,” a strange request. Wouldn't that be intentional biasing of the facts?

He paused to issue a statement to worldwide Islamist extremists: “You can’t outlast us and we will get you,” he averred. I am young but no milquetoast.

Then he segued into the need for personal responsibility among all Americans. But this was an unclear admonition. We should all work at a soup kitchen once in a while? Ok, fine, but what is the political point? People should be nicer? Of course they should. It was a nonspecific argument he was trying to sell. We should drive smaller cars? Maybe, but also, he said “Americans do not apologize for our way of life.” So I guess SUVs are ok after all. I thought the implication might have been, if you want to partake of the forthcoming government largesse, you must sacrifice something, in some unspecified way. But what? How? That part of the speech went past me.

Just as vaguely, Mr. Obama emphasized that we are now in the era of post-partisan politics. It does not matter whether you think government is too big or too small, he said, only what actually works. Well, sure. But “what works” is as much a matter of ideology as of empiricism. Do massive government bureaucracies, such as government-sponsored health care, “work,” or do they only lead to involuted “big gummint”? Do large, permanent tax cuts “work” or are they only subsidies for the rich? Obama cannot be described as naïve, so his rhetoric of post-partisan politics must be seen as partisan populist positioning ahead of what he knows are going to be tough ideological battles.

Taken as a whole, the speech seemed flat to me, full of platitudes, and maybe even a little dishonest in the sense that it was ostensibly addressed to the 2 million people standing in front of him, but actually addressed to the politicians sitting near him, and listening to him around the world.

On the other hand, the speech had the artistic quality of deicticism, meaning it demonstrated in fact what it was about in content. The speech began with burning criticism of the past administration and arced forward to glowing terms of hope and bipartisanship. That verbal change of scenery echoed the transition between the two administrations in front of our eyes, and the facticity of Obama standing there, confidently addressing millions of screaming followers, while G.W. Bush sat beside him with a blank expression. So the speech expressed its own gesture.

Nevertheless, I thought I could read the thoughts on Bush’s forehead: “He has no idea. A rude shock awaits.”

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