Inaugural Impressions

Belatedly, here they are.


1. Dick Cheney looked way too much like Mr. Potter being wheeled out onto the podium.
2. Aretha Franklin was marvelous.
3. Rick Warren was terrible.
4. I quite liked “Air and Simple Gifts.”
5. Justice Stevens is in excellent shape for his age.
6. Obama looked genuinely annoyed at the oath foul-up.
7. The poem was terrible.
8. The kids in Harlem where I was watching the proceedings were exceptionally well-behaved, which I expected, but not as over-the-top with enthusiasm as I would have thought:


I think Ross hit the nail on the head by calling it a mix of Carter and Reagan: it was Carteresque in the description of our current economic predicament (I almost expected to hear the word “malaise” – which, as I understand, wasn’t actually uttered in Carter’s Malaise Speech either) and Reaganesque in the soaring tribute to those who came before us and the promise that the best is yet to come. And I thought that combination suited the national mood, and the political needs of the new administration, perfectly.

I also agreed that there was a strikingly conservative tone to certain portions – particularly the George Washington section and the closing talk about the meaning of citizenship. The repeated invocations of the founders, of our founding ideals, of those who came before and keeping faith with them – this was a very concerted effort, threaded through the entire speech, to make it clear that the “change” Obama has been talking about for so long isn’t about changing what America is in any essential way. That’s a very important rhetorical posture for Obama to take, particularly if he does plan really dramatic changes.

Among the various “conservative-toned” portions of the speech, this passage struck me particularly as historically significant:

[I]t has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

Take a look at that passage again. We’re used to hearing about settlers and immigrants coming here for a better life, and working terribly hard so that the next generation can life better. We’re used to hearing about those who fought and died to protect that promise. We are not used to hearing about those who endured the lash of the whip being part of that same fraternity – a fraternity who worked and sacrificed and suffered for their country. After all, they did not choose their country or their suffering. This passage amazes me with its audacity – I’m genuinely curious to know how it sounds to African-American ears to hear their ancestors, who struggled and worked so that their owners might live a better life, made retrospectively into partners in the American enterprise in this fashion, because their children are heirs in common with the heirs of slaveowners to the American promise.

There were a number of passages in the speech that I thought were felicitous or powerful; that was the only part that made me sit up and take notice.

I thought the occasional descent into State of the Union-ish program-mongering was off, but unlike some critics I didn’t think this was a major flaw, nor a sign that the speech didn’t know what it wanted to be. Rather, what struck me about the programmatic aspects of the speech – at least with respect to domestic policy – was how frequently they had little to do with the specific crisis we are in. I’m not complaining that Obama didn’t offer detailed solutions to our problems – that’s not what this kind of a speech is for. I’m just surprised that the message seemed often to be about providing services, and promising to be careful about waste, rather than about increasing productivity first and foremost – getting back to work – and articulating how this priority dovetails nicely with an effort to improve and expand access to services. It was also notable to me the degree to which, for the Obama Administration, the metaphorical war on warming plays a role analogous to the role that the metaphorical war on terror played in Bush’s rhetoric.

In any event, because the specifics of how we were going to “get to work” so rarely touched down on things that sounded like actual work, the speech occasionally took on a Trofimov-esque quality that struck me as comical when it was most trying to be serious.

The foreign-policy portion of the speech was, I thought, the strongest “programmatic” portion. I thought Obama did a masterful job sounding tough in proposing a more conciliatory policy. That’s going to be an important trick to pull off, generally. But again, there was an interesting tension between two visions of America’s role vis-a-vis the rest of the world.

I’ll illustrate the tension with two passages that followed immediately one upon the other:

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.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

The first passage partakes of what I would call an “East-West” policy orientation. The mere fact that it begins with a message to “the Muslim world” – another world, not our world, with its own identity – suggests we’re in a Huntingtonian paradigm of distinct civilizations – interpenetrated and internally diverse, yes, but still distinct – that need to have relations with each other. The Western world is one; the Muslim world is another. Obama seeks better relations between them based on mutual interest and mutual respect. We may not like the way they do things over there, but we’ll seek to change their ways primarily by showing them a better way, by example. Note that this passage is primarily addressed to leaders of nations.

The second passage partakes of what I would call a “North-South” policy orientation. There’s only one world, but there are rich countries and poor countries, and the rich have both a moral obligation and a rational self-interest in the welfare of the poor countries – and to that end are inevitably going to be involved in their internal affairs (suffering outside our borders is, by definition, inside someone else’s borders). That involvement certainly need not involve violence, but it is hard to reconcile with the kind of distance required for “mutual respect.” Mutual respect between donor and recipient of aid is a very tough thing to achieve – thymos keeps getting in the way. Note that this passage is primarily addressed to people of nations, bypassing their leaders.

A tension between the two orientations is highlighted by the simple fact that there’s a lot of “South” in the “East” – majority-Muslim countries are among the largest poor countries in the world.

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no way the two perspectives can work together in a mutually-reinforcing manner. But I do think it’s important to highlight the differences, and potential conflicts, between viewing the world as one, with ourselves as the leader, and viewing the world as many, with ourselves as the largest single force within it.

Finally, I agree with James Fallows: the close was extremely strong, and the addition of “God Bless the United States of America” was an unfortunate impromptu tack-on.