What Was Said, and What Was Not

Especially because he is so often such a skilled and moving orator…

And because of the tradition of momentous inaugural addresses accompanying momentous national transitions…

And because we so badly need such words and the powerful ideas behind them at the time of this particular momentous transition…

And because this was such a grand opportunity to launch a new direction in our politics, governance and community…

…For all these reasons I confess that I was somewhat disappointed with Barack Obama’s inaugural address.

Admittedly, my expectations were very high — perhaps unfairly so. Had George W. Bush or even John Kerry delivered the very same speech, I might have been rather impressed.

Moreover, I am loathe to micro-criticize this well-intentioned president, beginning literally with his first minutes in office. He deserves much better than that, and so do we.

But, truth be told, we needed some Lincoln, some FDR, some Kennedy this week, and we didn’t get it.

Obama speaks in rather vague generalities that allow his audience to project onto him much of what they choose to. I assume that, smart as he is, he does this on purpose, since he can thus benefit from winning their support without leaving himself pinned to commitments he may wish to avoid at a later date. That’s the mark of a skilled politician, but I don’t mean that as a compliment. It’s not the mark of a leader, it’s not the mark of the bold, and it’s not the mark of the moral.

The line from the speech I found most compelling was a case in point concerning his (intentional?) ambiguity. When he spoke about putting away childish things, that could have meant many things. If it had a particular meaning at all, I don’t think he meant it the way I wish he had. His reference was probably to the petty partisanship in Washington that he seeks to rise above during his presidency. I sure don’t have a problem with most of that concept, and I have no doubt that’s a winning theme with the majority of Americans. It’s just that a significant part of the disputes we’ve witnessed are real fights over real issues, and what we don’t need right now is for the Tom Daschles and Harry Reids of this world to all hold hands with regressive predators in the name of all getting along well on Sunday morning talk shows.

I’m not sure anyone would have been well served by Obama describing in detail the nightmare of our present circumstances, and naming the names of the folks most responsible for our condition, and this he largely did not do, except rather obliquely. It’s not in his nature, and it would not have served his purposes, for if there’s anything he appears to want to be from what we’re seeing of him, it’s a conciliator. Of course, his interests and the country’s are not necessarily the same thing. Personally, I don’t think conciliation at all costs is appropriate, especially now. If, for example, conciliation meant continuing in Iraq or Guantánamo, I say forget it. Even so, and even with all the bitterness within me, I didn’t feel the need for him to trash talk the little prince sitting right behind him. Now, on the other hand, if Obama wants to deploy his Justice Department in a series of criminal investigations of the Bush administration, that’s another thing…

I also can’t imagine an American president in 2008 being able to say to the world, “Sorry, man, we really screwed up,” as much as I suspect the new president probably believes that. Indeed, not only was there no comment of that ilk, but there was instead the obligatory macho rumblings from the helm of the insecure superpower. Even this may be advisable, if words are the cheap price that must be paid to keep the discredited right discredited. For surely if anything one-hundredth the magnitude of 9/11 were to happen on his watch, these great patriots will lunge to eviscerate Obama for his dangerous naivete and pacifism, even if he hadn’t ignored warnings about the incident and chosen to stay on vacation the month prior.

So what did happen in this speech? Two related things, I’d say, principally. First, there was a re-centering of American politics. I feel a bit sorry for young people who have effectively only ever known George W. Bush as their president. They’ve never had a model of something better in their lifetimes. Even still, they knew something was seriously, sickeningly wrong with their government. What they might not have been able to see, however, was the degree to which Bush was an aberration from a consensus that has long existed in American politics. Republican or Democratic administration, there’s been a shared sensibility, a shared set of boundaries, within which American government has operated for nearly a century now, with only the partial exception of Lil’ Bush’s forebear, Ronald Reagan.

Bush was the only sustained aberration to that consensus, and bringing the 19th (if not the 13th) century back to life in the 21st was, of course, just as disastrous as any intelligent being might have predicted — and many of us did. Much of Obama’s speech was a reminder of those boundaries and the hard-gained wisdom associated with their acquisition over centuries of experience. He talked about how government is neither all bad nor all good, how the market can be beneficial but only within limits, how our ideals, liberties and rights need not be sacrificed to maintain our security, how our power abroad is based on more than the size of our military arsenal.

Whodathunkit, eh? Mixed economy, guaranteed freedoms, good relations abroad. What a concept, huh? Back in the hazy, distant past of 2000, we thought we had learned these lessons for the rest of time. But what we’ve learned instead from Bush and Cheney is just how tenuous those principles really are. It was therefore right and proper that Obama devoted a portion of his inaugural speech to reacquainting us with our better angels, so long on holiday of late.

The president’s second theme was to issue in his speech a rather tepid call to arms, a rallying cry to bring the country together to collectively address a national crisis or six. This was right and necessary, but it was probably wholly insufficient.

Whether that is true or not brings us right face to face with the trifecta of related questions whose answers will sketch the grand arc of American history these next decades: How deep are we in this thing? How bold is this president willing to be, both in policy decisions and in advocacy of those positions before a reluctant public gown lazy and selfish? And, therefore, will he be a great president or merely a good one?

Imagine if FDR had responded to Pearl Harbor by waiting a week or two, then casually mentioning the event in a VFW speech principally devoted to trade policy with Latin America. Abraham Lincoln is widely considered America’s best president in history, and his predecessor, James Buchanan, is generally thought to be the worst. (Or, at least, he used to be.) And, interestingly, both for the same reason — namely, how they reacted to the crisis of Southern secession. Buchanan dithered, Lincoln responded. And even though I am among those rare individuals who thinks that history gets this backwards (as much as I admire Lincoln in many ways), since I generally believe in the right of peaceable secession, you can nevertheless see the point here. The public demands action from its presidents in a moment of crisis, and the great ones are those who show up.

This is what people want. Except, of course, when they don’t, which tends to be when they are lazy, selfish and unwilling to sacrifice. I think there has been an implicit understanding amongst our political class that this is precisely how to understand the country today. In the moment of greatest crisis in a generation’s time, our president calls upon us to go shopping. No politician not seeking career suicide seems capable of getting the words ‘tax increase’ past their lips. Indeed, whilst fighting two expensive wars overseas, Washington massively slashed tax revenues. Whether a generation or two grown fat in opulence and enured to remote controls and microwaved meals could ever again be called upon to make a more authentic sacrifice for country than sticking a removable magnetic yellow-ribbon on the back of their SUVs is truly an open question. Not for nothing do we have an all-volunteer military.

Perhaps the answer to what we can expect from people depends on how deep is the crisis we face, which is the even more fundamental open question of our time. Maybe this is just another recession we’re into now — albeit a bad one — and we’ll emerge from it to become richer than ever, as we have in the past. Or maybe not. And, of course, that is only the economic crisis, among many others.

I tend to think that this is a lot bigger turning point in American and even human history. Actually, I suspect we long ago hit that turning point, but managed to mask it with theft, rampant borrowing, and feel-good jingoist politics, of which regressives like Reagan and both Bushes were masterful at exploiting.

Ultimately, the question of our time is about sustainability. Have we merely hit various speed-bumps along the road — somehow, in a stroke of ridiculously improbable bad luck, all simultaneously — or do these economic and fiscal and environmental and foreign policy and healthcare and national security crises represent something far more fundamental? Has America been living, in all these respects, a fundamentally unsustainable lifestyle? One in which maintaining pathetically juvenile materialist compulsions of seemingly bottomless proportions requires predatory foreign policies, catastrophic environmental degradation, looting of our own children’s piggy banks, and leaving one-sixth of the population with no health insurance whatsoever?

I think it’s pretty hard to avoid that conclusion, actually. And I suspect that Barack Obama knows this as well as I do. But either way — whether he is cynical or just Pollyannaish — what was missing from the grand opportunity of this inaugural speech was an equally grand reckoning with this difficult but unavoidable destiny. As such, Obama risks falling very much on the wrong side of history. If some Dennis Kucinich has to ride into office eight years from now and do radical surgery on a patient who could have been saved at far less cost and with far less trauma a decade earlier, then his predecessor, the man who could have been Lincoln, instead becomes another Buchanan.

American politics is nothing if not a continual exercise in irony, and what makes this particular scenario especially ironic is that it would actually do the country a world of good to jettison its old ways. In that sense, we are like the kid who expends ten times the energy finding ways to avoid doing his homework as just doing the assignment would have required. I suspect we could even make this transition — if we did it intelligently — in ways that would not even necessarily significantly diminish our current levels of opulence, though god knows this corporate machine dba The United States of America could stand a serious redefinition or two of what it means to be rich. I think we might even feel good about the process, about the temporary sacrifices, and about our gluttonous selves, in ways we haven’t for so very long now.

But getting there will require a far bolder Barack Obama than we’ve seen these last two years, and than was to be found on the inaugural platform this week. Maybe the guy knows something I don’t. Maybe he and I are heading toward the same place, but he’s just a lot craftier about how to get there than I am. But if that’s his strategy, I would question whether he can fool people big enough to go far enough. And whether a fooled people are a transformed people at the end of the day, anyhow.

Or maybe he’s smart enough to appreciate that this has to be done incrementally. And that you have to win power to exercise power. Lord knows if I had been his speechwriter these last two years we’d be stuck with Her Highness, Madame President right now. Or maybe even President POW and his sidekick, Vice President Jesus Ignoramus Moosekiller. But even if incrementalism is requisite to get this biggest of jobs done, there are rare moments where you get to crank the ratchet a couple of good solid turns, standing there on your bully pulpit. This was one of them.

What we heard on Tuesday was fine, if less than Lincolnesque in its eloquence. But I’m far more troubled by what we didn’t hear. Like about the obscene polarization of wealth bequeathed us by Reaganism-Bushism. Like about the impending doom of our little blue spaceship if we don’t get serious about global warming, starting yester-decade. We did not hear about how it is morally and fiscally unsustainable to maintain a military machine that costs more than every other country’s on the planet, combined. We did not hear that our healthcare system is a crime masquerading as national policy. We did not hear plain talk about the lethal bankruptcy of our foreign policy.

These are gigantic challenges necessitating gigantic responses. Even accounting for the possible benefits of incrementalism and perhaps even certain amounts of benign subterfuge, there is no way imaginable to me that we can get close to the required remedies for these problems without a leadership busy at framing these crises as such, articulating grand solutions, cajoling us to do better, and cheering along our progress.

That is why this speech strikes me so much as a lost opportunity. As president, you only get that platform once or twice ever. The only thing even close is an annual state of the union. Everything else is just a speech, just a weekly radio broadcast, just another commencement address. This was the time for some serious cognitive reorientation to lay the groundwork for what comes next.

Barack Obama, fifteen minutes into your presidency, you haven’t lost me yet. And, no matter what, you will always be infinitely superior to the bungling predator who proceeded you. And that counts for a lot.

But if you want to be great and not just okay, if you want to be as revered as your hero, Mr. Lincoln, you’re gonna have to do better.

My advice to you comes in the form of just two words.

Be bold.


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