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Commenting on the Ultimately Unimportant Inaugural Speech

January 20, 2009

The French Cowboy only read the transcript of President Obama’s inaugural address (oh my, I can’t help but get a bit nostalgic here: no more President Bush) so whatever information Obama delivered via his voice and gestures is unknown to me. But here are some thoughts on the (read) speech.

First of all, it ultimately doesn’t matter what Obama said in his speech. As long as he didn’t say anything truly revolutionary – and he didn’t – you can assume that all he said was an effort to say something that 1. matches the solemness of the occasion 2. those who voted for him want to hear 3. those who didn’t vote for him want to hear. (And, of course, with 2. and 3. overlapping only very little, it is hard to hit the bull’s eye.) Whatever the speech contained, it doesn’t mean much. Only actual decisions and policies will be of consequence.

Obama used a good portion of the speech to invoke images of America’s history. This is a safe bet to match all the three points mentioned above. It makes everybody feel extra proud and solemn: conservatives because they like it when their country’s greatness gets lauded and when a day as important as the inauguration day gets appropriately celebrated, and liberals because they get all excited about the notion that they have something to do with tradition, history, and sacrifices made by people who have lived before them, even if they reject the values associated with those in everyday life.

The same is true about a general battle cry: “ 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” etc. This kind of language makes everyone feel like a sword-wielding hero standing on some lonely hill with the wind blowing through their hair. And the more abstract the context the more it has the effect of an ego-booster. (Even though, of course, nothing has actually been accomplished yet.) Nothing wrong with that. There are few occasion on which you can say such things without being ridiculous, so by all means, go ahead when you can.

Many parts of the speech were standard liberal nonsense about a bright and happy future in which cars are run by wind power, aging is without pain, and stuff. Also, the classic Democrats’ “Tell them how miserable they are so that they accept the idea of government intervention”  approach was dutifully executed. Basically, the message was that the USA is in the deepest horrible pit and that doom and gloom is everywhere. But not to worry, because Obama is from the government and he is here to help.

To the new President’s shame, every other paragraph contained the suggestion that Bush has turned the country into ashes (and that Obama will turn it into a Phoenix, bien sûr.) “We must […] begin again the work of remaking America”? “[W]e are ready to lead once more“? Guided by these principles once more“? “What is demanded then is a return to these truths”? (Italics all mine. Although, it is quite possible that Obama spoke those words with such italics.)

Also: “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals” – Is this Obama’s way to say: “Thank you, President Bush, that you kept us safe”? By saying that he sacrificed the nation’s ideals for this? Or this: “we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders” – does Obama suggest here that President Bush was indifferent to “suffering outside our borders”? And: “We will restore science to its rightful place[.]” – good grief!

The long passage in which Obama lauded the military obviously belongs into category 3. He forgot to mention them in past addresses about service for the country and got criticised for it, so he remembered never to make this mistake again. He is certainly also aware of the rather unethusiastic attitude the servicemen and women display to have about him in surveys. So it’s a smart and obvious move by him to try and win some brownie points with the members of the military.

Given the likely target function as outlined above it is no wonder that Obama’s speech contains quite some contradictions. For instance, “[w]e will not apologize for our way of life” and yet “the world has changed, and we must change with it.” And the market’s “power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched” and yet it “favors only the prosperous” and something extra must be done to “extend opportunity to every willing heart[.]”

All in all the speech was unspectacular, precisely because Obama did what he did during the last months: try to be friends with everyone – the only exception being his predecessor, for which there is a straightforward reason: Bush’s approval ratings are so low that Obama cannot win by saying anything positive about him. Obama seems to have made his primary goal to maximise the number of people who support him. While Bush’s presidency was led by his personal beliefs about right and wrong, Obama seems to be the type who makes his decisions based on opinion polls. But let’s see how he will govern. May he be a good president.

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