Standing up to the ‘sapping of confidence’

The speech was perceptive, but Obama won’t be able to ‘renew America’ until he can properly define its crises and enemies.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

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Presidential inauguration ceremonies are important rituals in American political history. Inaugurations have been the occasion for era-defining speeches: Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865 (‘with malice toward none… let us strive on… to bind up the nation’s wounds’), Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first in 1933 (‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’), and John F Kennedy’s in 1961 (‘ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country’) (1).

More often, however, the speeches are underwhelming. ‘The platitude quotient tends to be high, the rhetoric stately and self-serving, the ritual obsessive, and the surprises few’ – that’s how the noted historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, put it (2). Yet even if the speeches fail to uplift, all inaugurations in modern memory have been significant historical markers; another historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, refers to them as ‘sacred renewals’ of the country: ‘You feel like America can change suddenly because there’s a new president there.’ (3)

This year, the inauguration of Barack Obama as president carried greater meaning, and was anticipated more eagerly, than others in recent times. The combination of the first African-American president and the most significant economic downturn since the 1930s created a sense that Obama’s inauguration was a truly historic event.

The inauguration also provided a focus for expressing great enthusiasm for the new president. More than one million people packed the Mall in Washington, and many millions more in the US and worldwide watched it on television. Unlike in prior years, many schools in the US stopped lessons so that the kids could watch.

The crowd in DC was not only much larger than those at prior inaugurations, but also much younger and more African-American, highlighting the Obama campaign’s success at energising these sections of the population. Polls also showed that Obama would be entering the White House with tremendous support: 79 per cent are optimistic about the next four years, despite our dire economic times (4). And, as a sign of his popularity, the newly elected president was greeted at the inauguration with chants of ‘O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma’… It’s hard to recall a president who has been as popular as this in modern times.

The visuals of yesterday’s event also provided potent symbolism that a new era had begun, that a new generation had taken the reins. We saw Republicans looking old and past it: George HW Bush hobbling with a cane, Vice-President Dick Cheney in a wheelchair, George W Bush greyer and meeker than ever, slinking into his helicopter without fanfare. In contrast, we watched the youthful, smiling and energetic Obamas – Barack, wife Michelle, and daughters Sasha and Malia – take centre stage.

With this background, expectations were high for Obama’s inaugural address. Not only because of the historic nature of his ascendancy, but also because of the reputation he has earned for elevating rhetoric. In the event, however, his speech fell short of many of his fans’ hopes: it did not soar, nor did it create a swell of emotion, like his 4 November election victory speech in Chicago did. Consequently, many said the day is likely to be remembered more for the event itself – the remarkable crowd and enthusiasm, plus the sheer fact of the induction of the first black president – than for his oration.

Indeed, while the mood among the crowd was celebratory, Obama adopted a serious, sometimes downbeat, tone in his speech. Yet while it did not generate much applause (and some called it dull), his speech was in fact weightier than most of his earlier ones. Inauguration speeches have typically been occasions more for poetry and vision than details, and Obama’s was no exception. But, despite lacking policy points, the speech did contain substance. In particular, it showed Obama starting to move beyond being a mere symbol (‘who he is’) and attempting to provide a sense of direction in his new role as president.

Obama sought to use his address to frame, as he puts it, ‘the moment’ in history. In other words, he sought to identify the challenges facing the country, and indicate how serious they are from a historical perspective. ‘That we are in the midst of a crisis is now well understood’, he said, citing war and the economy, among other issues. But this crisis is not limited to these obvious sources: ‘Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land – a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.’ This recognition of the depth of the problem – that it is one of national purpose and confidence – is perceptive. Furthermore, when Obama talks about a lack of unity, he is not referring just to divisive partisanship among politicians; he is concerned more generally about the potential for wider social unravelling.

People might assume that Obama’s main objective is to pass a stimulus bill to bolster the economy, but as his speech indicates, it really is broader and more political than that. He wants to transform American culture and to restore confidence. In his speech, Obama relied heavily on referencing American ideals and history to indicate how to meet the challenges of today: ‘Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true. These have been the quiet force of progress through our history.’

In particular, Obama identified the cultural problem as one of immaturity. Citing the Bible, he said ‘the time has come to set aside childish things’. He referred to the ‘collective failure to make hard choices’ and ‘putting off unpleasant decisions’. To address this problem, Obama recommends hard work, offering up examples of the struggles and sacrifices of earlier generations of Americans. He recognises that many have experienced difficulties recently, but counsels (paraphrasing a Fred Astaire movie) that ‘we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America’.

This theme of renewal is a recurring one in American history, and Obama raised it again in his speech when talking of a ‘new era of responsibility’ based on service to the community and the country. It is his call to action, like JFK’s ‘ask not…’, but he doesn’t really spell out what he means by it. His co-opting of the ‘responsibility’ theme is an interesting twist for the liberal Obama, given that it has been associated with a conservative criticism of permissiveness. It seems that, through his call for ‘responsibility’ and service, Obama is trying to point the way towards a new collective identity, one that goes beyond the isolated individual, to address the crisis of national belief and purpose.

In other places in his speech, Obama tried to project confidence by means of sheer toughness and determination. He said: ‘The challenges we face are real… But know this, America – they will be met.’ And he asserted: ‘All this we can do. And all this we will do.’

At the same time as indicating new ways of boosting morale, Obama also used his inaugural address to re-state campaign-trail themes of post-partisanship and post-ideology: ‘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.’ Specifically, he said that the debates over ‘whether our government is too big or too small’ and ‘whether the market is a force for good or ill’ are outdated, and instead the approach should be pragmatic, focusing on what works. So far, Obama’s aggressive call to avoid ideology appears to be working to isolate his Republican opponents.

And while the primary audience and cultural references were American, it is clear that Obama also has one eye on his global audience. A good third of his speech was devoted to international relations. Obama addressed sections directly (‘To the Muslim world…’, ‘To the people of poor nations…’ etc), effectively reaching out to every man, woman and child around the world. Obama is very aware that people around the globe are looking to him for inspiration. How this audience will greet his speech is uncertain. But his outreach shows that his is a strikingly borderless presidency, which may not physically occupy the world but certainly wants to do so emotionally.

The speech was realistic, in that it recognised the depth of the problems facing American leaders. And Obama, to his credit, seeks to draw upon the past as a source of strength and inspiration to confront these problems. He is a more nuanced thinker, with a greater appreciation of the complexity of the issues of today, than many of his supporters are.

But acknowledging the past, and trying to harness it for today, is not enough. Obama was unable to present a clear diagnosis of our current problems, or to point to a way out of them. For instance, Obama showed that he has not overcome the Bush administration’s failure to name the enemy on the war on terror when he referred to ‘a far-reaching network of violence and hatred’. Similarly, he did not explain why the economy is in such a bad state. He flippantly and unconvincingly referred to ‘greed and irresponsibility on the part of some’, as if these timeless traits can explain a downturn of what looks like historic proportions.

Problems cannot be addressed if they are not defined properly. In particular, if today’s problems are not explained as being the result of human agency, they are unlikely to be thought of as susceptible to human intervention and improvement. Without such an understanding, today’s crisis can appear fatalistically like a natural disaster – indeed, Obama’s speech contained a large number of weather metaphors (‘gathering clouds’, ‘raging storms’, ‘icy currents’). And when hit by a natural disaster, it’s not a question of transforming a system of social organisation. Instead, the best you can do is to pitch in and help out (and, along these lines, Obama praises ‘the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break’).

Obama is clearly entering the Oval Office as a novice. But, right now, this rookie appears as a colossus astride American politics. People have a genuine thirst for change, to break from the past, and to escape from cynicism. In our post-ideological times, Obama has reaped the benefits of this desire, as people invest their hopes in this one individual who appears to be above party politics and seems not to fit the traditional image of the dull and uninspiring politician. As Obama’s adviser, David Axelrod, said: ‘I think the public is rooting for us, and more importantly, rooting for the country.’ (5) Recent polls show that not only does Obama receive high popularity ratings, but most people are willing to be patient and give him at least two years to sort out the economy (6).

Obama will soon begin to make decisions as president, and thus will over time become less of an empty vessel in which people pour hopes for change, and more of a politician who can be evaluated rationally. We will see if he takes advantage of the tremendous amount of support he currently enjoys, and if he will leverage that to meet the task he has set himself: to provide a new sense of purpose.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

(1) All past addresses can be found here.

(2) Quoted in The Speech, by Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, 12 January 2009

(3) Comment on NBC’s Meet the Press, 18 January 2009

(4) Poll finds faith in Obama, mixed with patience, New York Times, 18 January 2009

(5) In Obama’s remarks, theme of ‘Responsibility’ emerges, Washington Post, 19 January 2009

(6) Poll finds faith in Obama, mixed with patience, New York Times, 18 January 2009

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Topics USA


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