Saturday, January 24, 2009


So, the past week. It began with an impending sense of the Inauguration as the main event for a necessary transition of power, but also as a collective expression of the current Zeitgeist in the U.S. And that's what I heard Obama strive to give words to in his address: how to ring in the changes he will bring, but also how to attest to the change that his election already manifests.

It was a tall order, and it's easy to believe that, if the State of the Union at present were not so dire, then the speech could've been more uplifting. But the fact of the matter is that being president at this moment has to be one of the worst jobs imaginable, so the speech was in-keeping with that state of things, but what was moving about it, to me, was how carefully worded and emphatic it was. Obama didn't over-reach with rhetorical flourishes or empty, windy phrases. And there's a point there, I think, about the kind of president we can expect him to be: think back to JFK's inaugural speech with its claim for a new generation -- the urgency of the speech had in fact little enough to do with the situation. The drama came from Kennedy himself as the new, young ideologue with his hands on power, ready to take the Cold War up a notch. Or think of Reagan's paternal-sounding intention to remove paternalistic government from our lives. In both cases, the new leader had to distance himself significantly from his predecessor. Obama had that task as well, and he met it with a confident urgency closer to Reagan than to Kennedy, though like Kennedy he emphasized service to the country. But Reagan's "we can't live beyond our means" rhetoric and his "these problems will go away" riposte to the economic problems the U.S. faced in 1981 had nothing like the rhetorical force of Obama's "time to put away childish things." There was at least a glimmer for a moment -- amidst all the back-patting for how great America is, which every politician has to indulge to stroke our collective egos -- of a vision of Americans as essentially frivolous people. A bit of diagnostic self-recognition that would be welcome at this time.

But just as strong was the statement that "we will not apologize for our way of life," and, what was for me the finest line: "the price and the promise of citizenship" which packed the idea of "ask what you can do for your country" into the promise of a government still trying to do things for its citizenry, as opposed to the "government is not the solution" write-off of Reagan's take on things. But the "new generation" rhetoric has remained in play from JFK to Clinton to Obama -- and for Clinton, the first new president after the fall of the USSR, it perhaps should have rang strongest, and yet not so. For Obama speaks more tellingly to the hopes and fears of the generation born and coming of age since the Reagan/Bush years, in the post-Cold War, internet-boom and bust, increased terrorist threat, 9-11 aftermath, credit obliteration, and W.'s rogue executive branch. Clinton marked the moment when the liberal-based Baby Boomers, with their hopes for government-led change, came to power; W. marked the moment when the business-based Baby Boomers, with their 'every man for himself' profit margins, took it back. Obama marks the moment when both a dread of what government can do to us, if it acts wrongly, and a hope of what government can do for us, if it pursues enlightened ideas, hover over the question of the U.S.'s place in the world at the close of the first decade of the new century.

Finally, the most emotional moment for me in the speech was, oddly, the evocation of George Washington at war in winter, on the banks of a frozen river. While I'm not much on invoking "our forefathers," since every President, regardless of his policies or effectiveness, seems able to invoke them at will, Obama did make me glimpse for a moment how perilous and tenuous the birth of the country was, and with that went the reflection that nothing the U.S. has faced since has ever been as dire, that in almost anything the country has undertaken it has had a significant upper hand. So that brief vision of courage in the face of a major threat was timely in putting current fears into perspective -- a vision that could reach back through the nuclear war fears of JFK's speech to FDR's "nothing to fear but fear itself" speech on the dire economic crisis in 1933.

"The practices of unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and the minds of men. True, they have tried; but, faced by the failure of credit, they have proposed only lending more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow them they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and where there is no vision the people perish."
--Franklin Roosevelt, inaugural address, 6 March 1933

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