Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Reaction To The Inauguration Speech

Image credit: Obama campaign.

Relentless cynic that I am about all things Obama, I couldn't be troubled to get up early enough to listen to the inauguration live. I'm particularly relieved that I avoided Rick Warren's invocation, for reasons I've discussed previously, plus a few that P. Z. Myers discussed today. Nevertheless, there seem to be transcripts of President Obama's speech all over the place, so you won't be sparedmiss out on my commentary.

It starts out with something that I find quite thoroughly annoying:

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.

Transcript: Barack Obama's Inaugural Address

The meme that this is a "war" on terrorism has been one of the more insidious ones we've had to endure in the last few years. This isn't a war - it could be called a struggle, or even a fight, but it's not a war. Wars are life-or-death things for nations, not individuals. With these two sentences, Obama hasn't just perpetuated this awful phrase, he's embraced it.

The President continued:

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. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

Transcript: Barack Obama's Inaugural Address

I'd say he's described this problem pretty well. Unfortunately, the legislation put forward is disappointingly little compared to what's needed.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

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. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars 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.

Transcript: Barack Obama's Inaugural Address

And yet, the plan seems so small. It is certainly true that there are people who are minimizing the depths of our problems. That's one of the reasons I wrote this article and this one, but once again, the rhetoric seems greater than the action. Perhaps the country isn't ready for more, but I doubt that. I think the country is now firmly focused on this issue. The so-called "fiscal conservatives", and the talking heads they employ, can fuck themselves. I wrote this article to explain why.

The next paragraph contains both cause for hope and pessimism. The pessimism is that during the campaign, Obama was the only Democratic candidate who embraced the mistaken notion that Social Security is in trouble and needs to be fixed. That's what I think about when I read the phrase "but whether it works".

On the other hand, if there's one thing that Barack Obama has really stood for in his political career, it's been open government. He has already sponsored useful legislation to make it more open, and I'm optimistic that he'll continue that effort. It's long overdue. Government at the federal level is far too secretive to suit me.

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 - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

Transcript: Barack Obama's Inaugural Address

Here he's hit the nail on the head. Free market zealots seem to feel that the market ultimately can do no wrong. These same people have often cited the growth of the economy in and of itself, while ignoring the growing inequality in its distribution. That they embrace such absurd notions is troubling, but it's clear here that Obama does not. That's cause for at least a little optimism. How well Obama does at ignoring the interests of his many well-heeled supporters remains to be seen.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Transcript: Barack Obama's Inaugural Address

I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed in this paragraph. The trouble, I think, is that Barack Obama does not. There is ample evidence that his words don't match his actions here. Will this change now that he has powers that no President should ever have been granted? I doubt it, but I'd love to be proved wrong. His continued fetish for rendition apologist John Brennan is also troubling. On the plus side, both his Attorney General nominee and his CIA director nominee are explicitly on record as opposing the abuses that occurred in their prospective domains during the Bush Administration. If they are as good as their word, then things will get better, at least temporarily. His nominees for Solicitor General and Office of Legal Counsel are also causes for optimism, as they have both proved that they believe in the constitutional approach to law enforcement.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

Transcript: Barack Obama's Inaugural Address

This is a sentiment that Obama expresses rather often, including his book. Why didn't a Muslim or a non-believer give the invocation? I'm not resigned to the idea that religious minorities should, to quote one asshole, "sit down and shut up". Obama has demonstrated that he is. While his attitude is an improvement over the Bush philosophy on religious tolerance, it's a lot less inclusive than it needs to be.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society's ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

Transcript: Barack Obama's Inaugural Address

Here again, there's a difference between the words and past actions. There's reason for guarded optimism that he will do what he's suggesting here, though. The President has extraordinary latitude in what he can do in the area of foreign policy. Congress can provide guidance, should it choose, but it's not doing the work. Those who are doing have a lot of power regarding what actually gets done. In any case, if Obama reaches out to the leaders of the Muslim world early, including Hamas, he'll probably be able to start repairing the damage the Bushies have done.

On the whole, this has been a typical Barack Obama speech. The rhetoric is inspirational, if you ignore what's likely to happen. Fortunately for him, there are lots of people who will soon be explaining why things won't happen as we'd hoped, because we just have to be patient, ignore partisanship, blah, blah. As you can imagine, I'm really looking forward to that. At the same time, there are at least a few things that engender cautious optimism.

One thing's for sure, things won't be any worse than they've been for the last eight years.


One Fly said...

Agreed and it will be interesting. Since my expectations are little disappointment level will be small too. It's nice to have a chance to think of the "what if's".

Cujo359 said...

My expectations are low, but I'll be disappointed anyway. There's so much to do that we just can't afford to let so many things be done half-assed.