Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Washinton Post Reviews Obama's Speech

Starting with David Ignatius' Hard Truths at The Outset:

"Obama broke with this politics of immobilism: 'Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed.'

Obama's speech showed us, once again, that the new president really means it when he says that he wants to create a new kind of politics for a 'postpartisan' America. This has been difficult for some of his supporters to accept, in their rage against the Bush presidency and their understandable desire to settle scores with those who took the country into a dark and painful time. But Obama wants none of it. '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.' Did that cause a moment of self-reflection at Rush Limbaugh's offices, or at the Daily Kos? I doubt it, but one can always hope."

***

I especially liked Obama's message to terrorist adversaries of the United States -- people who believe that his election was a sign that the United States has gone soft; people who remain convinced that the decadent West is losing, and that they are winning. "For those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

It was a plain speech, like those of early American presidents, better savored in the reading than in the listening. The new president didn't pull out the rhetorical stops; he didn't try to score points. He just told the truth -- including the hard parts -- about where the country is and where it needs to go....
Republican Micheal Gerson had a different take:
To be sure, Obama has a presence and confidence that completely filled America's main rhetorical stage -- extraordinary for a man who just six years ago was giving floor speeches in the Illinois legislature. His arguments were sophisticated and politically ambitious. But the speech itself was -- amazingly, inexplicably -- uneven in its quality.

***

But the first literary goal of an inaugural address is to express familiar American ideals without resorting to distracting cliches. And Obama generally failed this test. There were too many "rising tides" and "gathering clouds" and "raging storms" and "nagging fears" and "dark chapters" and "watchful eyes" and "dying campfires" and "icy currents." Wages had to be "decent," and markets "spin out of control." It is simply mysterious how such tired language could sound appropriate to the ear of Obama the writer. Some phrases were just strange. Recriminations have "strangled" our politics, as in some "CSI" episode. We have "tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation." Yuck, in so many ways.

***

In content, Obama's speech was more compelling. His vivid assurances of toughness on national security were genuinely reassuring. When is the last time we heard a national Democrat admit that "our nation is at war" and promise to "defeat" American enemies? His discussion of the role of government was more sophisticated than in any inaugural since Ronald Reagan's in 1981 -- though his postpartisan appeal more resembled Bill Clinton's Third Way than Reagan's firm assertion of limited government.

And Obama's main argument -- for a "new era of responsibility" -- was traditional without being tired. From the beginning, Americans have displayed a unique combination of revolutionary idealism and moral conservatism. American presidents have generally asserted that the achievement of radical or progressive ideals such as unity and social justice requires a return to timeless American values such as responsibility and self-restraint, charity and the end of malice. Woodrow Wilson, for example, argued that "there has been something crude and heartless and unfeeling in our haste to succeed and be great. Our thought has been, 'Let every man look out for himself.'" But the answer, he continued, would be found in restoring "the standards we so proudly set up at the beginning and have always carried at our hearts."

***

This shows a deep understanding of America, which remains moral to its core -- and a mature understanding of American leadership. Obama's argument should appeal to many conservatives, who would never accept a case for progressive policies based on relativistic or libertarian moral views. Like Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr., Obama positioned himself as a conservative revolutionary -- attempting to re-create our country by reasserting the traditional moral principles that gave it birth.

This type of insight makes President Obama a formidable political figure -- and if he really believes and defends these ideals, perhaps a formidable American leader.

Heading into this inaugural address, many expected the speech to be rhetorically masterful but perhaps ideologically shallow. Instead, we heard a speech that was rhetorically flat and substantively interesting. On his first day in office, President Obama has managed to surprise.

Harold Meyerson writes:

For the line in Barack Obama's inaugural address that rocked the nation back on its heels, the line that brought the shock of recognition to the moment, was the president's assertion that by America's living up to our founding creed, "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

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That was the history, and everybody knew it. That is what brought the tears.

The speech itself had something of a "last shall be first" air. More than any inaugural address I can think of, it encapsulated the story of America's working class. Obama celebrated "men and women obscure in their labor" who "toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth."

Such invocations served several distinct but overlapping purposes. They were, first, part of a broader tableau of inclusivity that Obama painted, a nation whose religious census includes "Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers."

Second, they were an affirmation of the value of work, which, in turn, provided the moral basis for the redistributive economics that was one of the two fundamental departures from past policies that Obama championed in his speech. "The market can spin out of control," he told us, referring not merely to the current meltdown but also to the ways in which an uncontrolled market can and has damaged the great middle class. "The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous," he said. "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 the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity but because it is the surest route to our common good."

We measure the merit of government, he added, not by how wide a berth it gives the market but by "whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified."

With those words, the age of Reagan was ceremoniously but unambiguously interred. For 30 years, the widely shared prosperity created and then enjoyed by the Greatest Generation has been eroding. Obama's speech was the first presidential inaugural to address the narrowing of American prosperity and to announce the intention to broaden it again.

***

America's defining challenge has always been to take seriously the assertion of human equality in our founding document, though many of our Founders were themselves unable to broaden their definition of humanity to include the people whose unpaid work was the basis of their own well-being. The battle to conform American realities to American ideals has been the central narrative of American history. Yesterday, everyone recognized that the story was advancing by chapters, or maybe volumes, before our eyes.

George Will has less to say about the speech compared with the speaker:

Now, however, the ubiquitous federal government struggles with tasks, from managing the economy to inspiriting the citizenry, that were not considered government tasks until long after 1789. Today, when many Americans seem to want in the presidency a semi-royal presence of the sort that Washington eschewed, inaugural addresses ring with regal confidence.

Obama's preternatural confidence is intended to be infectious. His presidency begins as an exercise in psychotherapy for a nation suffering a crisis of confidence. But neither the nation nor the government that accurately represents it is constructed for consensus. And he will be unable to fault his office for his frustrations because, more than any predecessor except the first, the 44th president enters office with the scope of its powers barely circumscribed by law, and even less by public opinion.

***

Obama, whose trumpet never sounds retreat, overstated the scale of our difficulties with his comparison of them with those the nation faced in the almost extinguishing winter of 1776-77. Still, the lyrics of cultural traditionalism with which he ended -- the apostle of "change we can believe in" urging the nation to believe in "old" values -- reinforced his theme of responsibility, summoning the nation up from childishness.

Yesterday morning, before the speech, I ran into a Republican friend of mine who quipped that Obama was going to walk on the Potomac to the inauguration. Reading the speech, I think he did something harder for a politician - he got into the mud and called it mud.

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