Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural Remarks: First Assessment

Inaugural addresses are not by their nature specific.
They are thematic.
They paint with broad strokes, setting a tone for what is to come.
President Obama's address today was no different. It contained the type of broad rhetoric that the new President is comfortable with: aspirational rather than operational.
Though he said that the real questions is not whether government is too big or too small but rather whether or not government works, Obama gave us no clues as to how he will decide which government programs work and which don't.
Yes, he hinted that he would get rid of certain government programs. But, which ones?
We just don't know.
And yes, Obama's remarks contained an implied answer to Reagan's declaration in 1981 that government is not the solution but government is, rather, the problem. Obama apparently assumes that government is the solution, no matter how big it gets. He just wants to make sure it works right.
Strong words of national defense in the speech were balanced by neo-liberal rhetoric about peace and understanding.
Still, while Obama seemed to reject "missiles and weapons" he lavished praise on our fighting men and women in the armed forces and pointed to their service as an example to all. Even though he stuck to his rhetoric on an eventual withdrawal from Iraq it was nice to hear him acknowledge the sacrifice of the military and to hear him evoke the memories of Washington and his army of the Revolution.
I think it was fine for President Obama to point to our diversity and to recognize as a source of strength and recognize the many faiths that practice in America. But I don't know why he felt the need to point out that that we are a nation of "non-believers" as well. Somehow that didn't sit right with me. It didn't settle well on my ears.
How can you criticize "cynics," challenging them and nearly mocking them while at the same time putting "non-believers" on the same plain as people of faith? We all know that so many of those "non-believers" are simply nihilists and/or cynics. Why grant them official recognition? Unfortunately, I must assume that this represented some morally fuzzy liberal thinking that crept into the speech.
This was certainly an historic occasion.
But was this an historic speech?
Will it be put alongside the four or five "great" Inaugural addresses: Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy?
At first blush I would have to guess "no."
It was a blessedly brief speech. And it was refreshingly non-egotistical, mentioning the word "I" only a few times. And it wisely Incorporated messages borrowed from our history and from scripture while striking classic themes.
But nothing really jumps out at me -- nothing that says: "Look at this. Study this. Think about this. Remember this. This is something to savor; something that sounds like it would stand the test of time."
Still, I'll read it again and consider it further.


K.O. Myers said...

How can you criticize "cynics," challenging them and nearly mocking them while at the same time putting "non-believers" on the same plain as people of faith? We all know that so many of those "non-believers" are simply nihilists and/or cynics. Why grant them official recognition?

Because we're citizens too, Dan. Just because you have a blinkered, stereotypical view of a segment of the population doesn't mean our government has to agree with you.

And really, among all the prayers and the requests for god's favor that marked this day, was it really so awful that people who don't believe in a deity got a single crumb of recognition?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Dan, hope you're well.

Interesting that you begin the post by pointing out that these speeches are not typically specific and then criticize the President for not being specific. That's telling.

At any rate, for those interested in a good analysis of the speech, I encourage reading the two links below. I'm not, by the way, affiliated with the writer or the publication. It's just good reading for those who care about speechifying.


Dave W.



Sean Schafer said...

It was weak. Not only does it not belong in great speeches I don't know if it makes the top 3 Obama speeches so far.

Dan Cirucci said...

LBB: This was just the first time I ever heard a President mention "non-believers" and grant them what appears to be moral equivalency with peoplo of faith, and in an Inaugural address no less. Why? I don't get it. I must be missing something.
It sounds vaguely existential and vacant.
Dave W.: Here's my point -- Obama never even gave us a hint as to HOW he would judge which programs are working and which are not. And I feel that the speech went so out of its way to be non-idealogical that it wound up being somewhat rudderless.
This was an historic moment -- an historic opportunity. But this was not an historic speech.

K.O. Myers said...

Religion doesn't have a monopoly on morality, Dan. A religious person can be just as wicked as an atheist, and vice versa.

Radu Gherman said...

I'd have to agree with LBB. The effect of religious belief on an individual's moral compass depends on the individual. And 'non-believers' make up an increasing percentage of the population. And I'm assuming that the reason no one has mentioned them in the past is because they tend not to make noise.
Like I've said before, a lot of good has been done in the name of religion; but religion has caused much evil as well. In today's fast paced, increasingly technological and scientific society, a lot of what made up traditional beliefs and rites is going to be displaced. It doesn't mean that people become less than moral. It means that some people have to grant a "non" or "less" believer the benefit of the doubt when it comes to judging him or her based their religious inclination. And to an extent, that's what Obama did.

Dan Cirucci said...

LBB and Draco: You have contributed important, cogent comments. I appreciate your views and agree that "religious" people can be very wicked indeed and that bad, bad things have been done in the name of religion. Very true.
I just don't know why Obama felt the need to insert this reference here - in an Inaugural address.
I think it would have been more effective (and more appropriate) if he had done it in a more faith-related or faith-specidic speech or setting. An example: maybe in remarks at a National Day of Prayer breakfast.
This was a very conscious decision to insert this in the Inaugural address and I'm not sure I understand why it was done.
Again, it just does not sit well with me.

Radu Gherman said...

Now that I think about it, he may have felt phantom pressure based on his decision to include Rev. Warren in the ceremony. I know the decision had more to do with gay rights, but given that the Bush presidency was in many ways associated with religion, Obama may have had religion on his mind. And if his theme has been unity, at least superficially, he would want to include everyone, not just the devout. I'd really like to know how the population breaks down along those lines. Anyone know?