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The Speech


It’s hard to say anything about it that hasn’t already been remarked upon in here or elsewhere. Like others, I was struck by how pedestrian the prose was, but on re-reading it, I like the plainspokenness of it. The weakest moments were when it, cringe-makingly, reached for the lyrical–”the bitter swill of civil war,” etc. Some other thoughts:


1) One thing I can’t stand is the false “false choice.” Bush had an enormous one in his Second Inaugural when he argued that our interests and our ideals are identical–sorry, not in this world. Obama had his version of the same thing yesterday when he said there’s a false choice between our safety and our ideals. Well, if you interpret our ideals as meaning enemy combatants deserve the rights and protections of our civilian criminal justice system–as most of Obama’s supporters certainly do–there is indeed a tension between our safety and our ideals. Sometimes important and desirable things–our interests and our ideals; our safety and our values–are in legitimate tension.


2) Obviously, Obama tends to argue that real tensions and choices are “false choices” because he wants to present himself as the avatar of our post-ideological future. Everyone besides Obama–assiduously just trying to figure out what works–is stuck in the stale arguments of the past. This is an understandable and shrewd political move on his part. I wonder, though, if he really believes it. Does he really think he has sat down and from a position of ideological neutrality figured out the best answers to all public policy questions, and they just happen to be overwhelmingly what the liberal members of the Senate Democratic caucus think?


3) If over the long term Obama is going to succeed at presenting himself as a pragmatist, his agenda is going to have to have significant, mixed ideological elements. This accounts for his talk during the campaign and yesterday of ending government programs that don’t work. Color me skeptical. Obama has been in public office since 1997. Has he ever fought to eliminate government programs? Ever? If so, I’m unaware of it. He has the opportunity to re-invent himself in these circumstances and on this stage, but no one should believe him until meaningful non-defense programs are zeroed out or cut.


4) I generally liked the national security language. It’s important to hear a liberal Democrat saying that this is a war and we are going to win it. Of course, Obama had a more Jeffersonian rather than Jacksonian take on how we influence the world, more concerned with tending to the power of our example rather than seeking out and destroying our enemies. This is just part of the inevitable cycle of the American foreign policy debate and not necessarily unhealthy (we need elements of both those traditions, among others–as Walter Russell Mead argued in Special Providence).


5) Like in Bush’s Second Inaugural, there was a universalistic element to the speech. Obama framed it more in terms of ushering in an era of peace rather than of freedom, but we are still going to usher in a new era. This language–and this aspiration–is just part of the American fabric.


6) Indeed, it was a comfortingly American speech. There’s always a very strong chance that an American president delivering an inaugural address is going to praise the spirit of the American people, call for a new era of responsibility, and present himself as an agent of change aligned with the future. In this regard, Obama’s speech was like an old shoe.


7) I’ve saved my favorite part for the end, because that’s where it came in the speech. I loved these lines where Obama talked about values like honesty and courage: “These things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.” What a wondrously wise and conservative sentiment. And I was delighted to hear Obama in his last paragraph join his old stand-by of hope with virtue. This was new and different from Obama and spoke to a depth in this man around whom there’s been such ridiculous hype.