Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama's Inaugural: dark skies, stark challenges

Obama's tone in his acceptance speech on Nov. 4 was somber. Today, it was almost apocalyptic -- the dangers evoked tonally overshadowing strong assertions of "yes we can" confidence. Early on, after the by-now-familiar litany of formidable challenges, he raised a stark specter:
These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. 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.
That's painting it a bit dark, isn't it? Obama's long been saying that the American dream feels like it's slipping away, but I would have thought 'decline' a rather Carteresqe third rail.

Of course there was Obama's signature counterpoint of confidence:
For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.
But at the end, again, Obama framed "our common dangers" in the starkest terms:

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
Whoa. We are facing a deeply alarming economic seize-up. But we're not exactly bleeding in the snow. Does Obama know something we don't?

In the 'yes we can' vein, there was perhaps an echo of Martin Luther King in a compressed version of Obama's familiar historical argument: that we shall overcome because we have overcome in the past, that 'courage is having been there before':
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 non-believers. 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.
The perfect tense here -- "we have tasted the bitter swill...and emerged stronger" -- holds the mirror up to King looking forward from the Lincoln Memorial in 1963:
Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.
Obama always presents our quest for a more perfect union as being in mid-course: much injustice still to overcome, much already overcome. Here, he affirms that we have got at least some of that bitter swill digested -- leaving him free to extend King's dream of a nation free from prejudice and tribalism from the U.S. to the world.

There was also a deep confidence underlying Obama's unequivocal rejection of the Bush Administration's malign perversions of executive authority - torture, suspension of habeas, kangaroo courts -- coupled with a message to the entire world that as we reject these abuses we will reassert our leadership:
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.
Finally, to match his raising of the threat level, Obama raised his call "change our politics" to the level of Biblical injunction:
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
We elected an adult. In the primary, Obama made the Clintons look small; in the general election, he made McCain look small. Now, he's calling on all to follow his example -- of magnanimity to opponents, focus on substantive issues, and disinterested pursuit of policies likely to work. And he's warning us: the consequences will be dire if we don't.

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