21 January 2009

Annotating Obama's Inaugural Address

I have a tendency to be overly critical. So I thought it might be fun to offer some comments on Obama's inaugural address. I've not read any of the published analyses yet, so who knows whether I'm simply restating what others have already said. The point will be to try identify the 'good bits'; you can find the transcript here at The New York Times. So here are some of the things that stood out for me:

(1) "My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors."
Obama addresses us not as "my fellow Americans"' but as "fellow citizens"; there is a subtle difference there - the former, and, of late, customary form of address, invokes a nation and all that nationalism entails, the latter a set of shared ideals and obligations.

I wish he'd invoked the importance of democratic practices and activism in the process of how power was "bestowed" on him. It doesn't just happen.
(2) "That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age."
I think his condemnation of "greed and irresponsibility" is right on point, and identifying "collective failure" is too. The former is prosecutable, the latter not. But it seems to me that it is entirely fair to point out that even those who were not taking out unsustainable mortgages and so on, were more than happy to have their 401(k) accounts inflate on the crest of the financial boom. And there were lots and lots of people willing to look away from the mal-distribution of wealth and income that paralleled the rise in their investments too.

[Added later that day: It should also be clear that the problem with the economy is not with individual motivations and responsibility. Individuals act within institutions and practices that establish incentives and provide information and distribute risks and benefits and costs. So, the remedy for our economic mess is not re-education - the problem calls for (thoroughgoing) institutional reforms.]
(3) "Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met."
OK., here is a criticism - how about ending with "we will meet them." The passivity leaped out at me.
(4) "For us, they fought and died in places Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn."
OK, another .... I expected the grand narrative of American achievement. It comes with the genre. But notice how, in his historical narrative of sacrifices Americans have made, Obama rehabilitates Viet Nam. For those who fought and died there this is welcome. But it is not in the least clear that they - any more than our troops now in Iraq - fought and died "for us."
(5) "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.

Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end."

I like the pragmatist move Obama makes here - and it reappears elsewhere - of deflating accepted dichotomies and focusing on consequences. What I worry about is whether the input into discussions about what "works" will be open and diverse or whether it will be dominated by those wedded to standard center-right positions.
(6) "Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched.

But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

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."
Again, he deflates accepted dichotomies - this time bromides about 'the free market.' But while I applaud his concern for prosperity and opportunity as well as his point that this is not a matter of charity, I wish for once he might invoke justice and fairness rather than the "common good." The latter provides way too much opportunity for the rich and powerful and their mouthpieces to try to identify their welfare with the general welfare.

Obama's resolute unwillingness to talk about justice and fairness and equality clearly differentiates him from Martin Luther King, Jr.[*] and other American progressives.
(7) "Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.

They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy, guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations."
Here we get justice! But if we've not noticed that it "begins at home," who abroad will believe us? And here I mean not just respect for human rights and international treaties, but concern for economic justice her and abroad. That said, it seems to me that the focus on multi-lateralism and diplomacy is overdue.
(8) "For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.

And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

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."
There are atheists and agnostics in America?!?! I nearly drove off the road listening to this on the way home last night. Sure, Obama invoked god repeatedly in the speech - it comes with the genre. But acknowledging we "nonbelievers"? Even if we bring up the rear in his list ...

And the fact that he spoke in reasonable tones to Muslims around the world. What a relief.

More generally, Obama apparently recognizes and embraces social and religious diversity; and he invokes the lesson of what happens when fanatics seek to suppress or exploit differences. None of that makes dealing with the conflicts diversity inevitably will generate easy. But he is throwing the net widely in hopes of identifying ways to coordinate rather than fight.
(9) "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 the 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."

Another missed chance to talk about justice and fairness or to at least turn our attention away from the idea that economic hardship can be remedied via charity.
(10) "These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.

What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship."

He offers a litany of virtues - sacrifice, selflessness and liberty. He ends on citizenship. Fair enough. But citizens are defined not just by mutual obligation and duty, but by a sense of justness and fairness as motivating and sustaining those duties. And citizens in a democracy have a duty, first and foremost, to call officials to account. That, by the way, is a central theme in American pragmatism too. So, having tried to be less critical, I end on that critical note.

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Blogger Teresita said...

Just admit it...you like him.

Happy new year. Looking forward to new posts.

22 January, 2009 15:15  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Happy New Year back!

Compared to the last guy, sure ... but he'll do nothing much worth liking unless he's pushed.

I hope all is well with you and the clan.

22 January, 2009 15:49  
Blogger Walter Dufresne said...

Proposing "citizenship" is a pretty radical proposition at a time when the dominant, overwhelming role and behavior for so many Americans is "consumer." I hope this succeeds.

24 January, 2009 14:15  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Walter - I agree!

24 January, 2009 16:30  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was a really good read. One of your best posts. Thanks.

24 January, 2009 18:22  
Blogger Kate G. said...

Obama said: "nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it."

I was incredibly excited by this. He's recognizing environmental injustice; indirectly, he's supporting action to turn Global Climate Change around. I was as excited by this as his acknowledgment of agnostics and atheists (although there's plenty more religion out there than Big Religion and Non-Believers).

26 January, 2009 12:03  

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