Wednesday, January 21, 2009

New York Times Reviews of Obama's Speech

First, from Maureen Dowd:

After thanking President Bush “for his service to our nation,” Mr. Obama executed a high-level version of Stephen Colbert’s share-the-stage smackdown of W. at the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2006.

With W. looking on, and probably gradually realizing with irritation, as he did with Colbert, who Mr. Obama’s target was — (Is he talking about me? Is 44 saying I messed everything up?) — the newly minted president let him have it:

“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” he said to wild applause (and to Bartlett’s), adding: “Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.” He said America is choosing hope over fear, unity over discord, setting aside “false promises” and “childish things.”

Letting a little air out of the highest hopes about what one man, even “The One,” can do, he emphasized the word “our.” He stressed that rebuilding after the wreckage of W. and Cheney will be a shared burden and that “giving our all to a difficult task” isn’t as bad as it sounds.

In his Inaugural Address, President Obama gave them the clarity and the respect for which all Americans have hungered. In about 20 minutes, he swept away eight years of President George Bush’s false choices and failed policies and promised to recommit to America’s most cherished ideals.

With Mr. Bush looking on (and we’d like to think feeling some remorse), President Obama declared: “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn- out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

The speech was not programmatic, nor was it filled with as much soaring language as F.D.R.’s first Inaugural Address or John Kennedy’s only one. But it left no doubt how Mr. Obama sees the nation’s problems and how he intends to fix them and, unlike Mr. Bush, the necessary sacrifices he will ask of all Americans.

***

Mr. Obama was unsparing in condemning the failed ideology of uncontrolled markets. He said the current economic crisis showed how “without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control” and that the nation has to extend the reach of prosperity to “every willing heart, not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.”

Mr. Obama also did not shrink from the early criticism of his ambitious economic recovery plan. Rather, he said the “state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift,” to build roads and bridges and electrical power and digital networks, to transform schools, and “harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.”

From Timothy Egan:

All great speeches, in their essence, are big stories, crafting an American narrative. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” as Joan Didion said. And to govern.

As a writer and creator of a family narrative that allowed him to live with a unique background, Obama knows this. So there was no laundry list of policies to come. And almost no mention of that most overused of personal pronouns – I.

Instead, he emphasized that “we gather because we have chosen hope over fear,” and “we understand that greatness is never a given,” and “we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking a nation.”

That’s the soundtrack, the imperative in the narrative.

The president will show us the way, he will head a government about to spend nearly a trillion dollars in a desperate attempt to right itself. But all of us must “set aside childish things” and “choose our better history.”

***

There are those who wanted more poetry, more loft in the speech. They wanted to hear the eloquence of the race speech Obama gave during the campaign. Or the call to tomorrow given from the mile-high perch of the nominating convention in the Rockies.

But this was a day, in a year, when all poetry will have a more urgent edge. Loft will not suffice.

We all look for a story to inhabit, a summons. Obama gave us that summons — “the price and promise of citizenship” – in which there will be no free rides. But also gave us the story, his very presence, the living, breathing blueprint for the new politics of possibility.

David Sanger wrote the following in his report:

To read his words literally, Mr. Obama blamed no one other than the country itself, critiquing “our collective failure to make hard choices” and a willingness to suspend national ideals “for expedience’s sake” — a clear reference to the cascade of decisions ranging from interrogation policies to wiretapping to the invasion of Iraq.

Yet not since 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt called for a “restoration” of American ethics and “action, and action now” as Herbert Hoover sat and seethed, has a new president so publicly rejected the essence of his predecessor’s path.

When Mr. Obama looked forward, however, he was far less specific about how he would combine his lofty vision and his passion for pragmatism into urgently needed solutions.

Mr. Obama spoke eloquently of the need to “restore science to its rightful place” and to “harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” But he never acknowledged that his agenda would eventually have to be reconciled with towering budget deficits or spelled out what “unpleasant decisions” he would be willing to make in the service of a renewed America.

At times, Mr. Obama seemed to chastise the nation, quoting Scripture to caution that “the time has come to set aside childish things.” It seemed a call to end an age of overconsumption and the presumption that America had a right to lead the world, a right that he reminded “must be earned.”

The chiding, if most resonant of the last eight years, also harked back to an argument he advanced early in his run for the White House: that the nation had been ill-served by the social, cultural and political divisions of the generation that included Bill Clinton as well as Mr. Bush.

***
It was, in many ways, exactly what one might have expected from a man who propelled himself to the highest office in the land by denouncing how an excess of ideological zeal had taken the nation on a disastrous detour. But what was surprising about the speech was how much he dwelled on the choices America faces, rather than the momentousness of his ascension to the presidency.

***

Mr. Obama never rose to the heights of Kennedy’s “pay any price, bear any burden.” Instead, he harked back to the concept that gave birth to the Peace Corps, noting that the cold war was won “not just with missiles and tanks,” but by leaders who understood “that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.”

The new president skirted past the questions of how he would remake American detention policy, how he would set the rules for interrogation and how he would engage Iran and North Korea, beyond promising to “extend a hand” to those willing “to unclench your fist.” He simply promised to strike the balance differently, as America tries to hew to its ideals while pursuing a strategy of silent strength.
And now Thomas Friedman:
But we cannot let this be the last mold we break, let alone the last big mission we accomplish. Now that we have overcome biography, we need to write some new history — one that will reboot, revive and reinvigorate America. That, for me, was the essence of Obama’s inaugural speech and I hope we — and he — are really up to it.

****

So, in sum, while it is impossible to exaggerate what a radical departure it is from our past that we have inaugurated a black man as president, it is equally impossible to exaggerate how much our future depends on a radical departure from our present. As Obama himself declared from the Capitol steps: “Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed.”

We need to get back to work on our country and our planet in wholly new ways. The hour is late, the project couldn’t be harder, the stakes couldn’t be higher, the payoff couldn’t be greater.

I feel certain that we will never witness Obama whining about how hard work is while spending so much time on vacation. I think we have seen the end of days when we confuse a braggart with a man of action.

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