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A Gut Reaction to The Obama Inaugural Speech

Related Post: And on the Eighth Day - Hopes and Fears Over the Obama Foreign Policy

It is a strange feeling watching this day, sitting amidst technology which gives access to numerous television channels, Internet streams, and Twitter.

On the one hand, no amount of detachment --- not even the challenge of writing a live blog and providing a running analysis --- could separate me from the excitement and the enthusiasm of today. I have said this as a pro forma for media interviews but today I believed it, "Growing up in Alabama in the midst of the racial issues of the 1960s and 1970s, I never dreamed that I would see an African-American become President of the United States."

And those hundreds of thousands on the Mall not only were in the midst of a realised dream but in the midst of hope. In the middle of an economic crisis, in the middle of a foreign-policy mess from Iraq to Afghanistan to the Middle East, facing the unknown extent of climate change, they took in and radiated hope. A hope for most that, after the division and destruction and turmoil of the last eight years, light would come out of darkness.

Obama's speech was not a great speech, by his standards; there were too many formulae that had to be laid out: the tributes to America's greatness but also the warnings of recent drift, the possibilities of freedom but the need to achieve it and protect it, the responsibilties of citizenship. These had to be carred across general references to the economy, social issues, America's common defense, foreign policy.

But, working to and laying out those formulae, Obama offered his flourishes: the reference that, 60 years after his father was refused service in a restaurant, he was taking "the sacred oath" of the Presidency, the tribute to both "fallen heroes" and those who served by taking in the dispossessed when the levees broke, the invocation "“This is the price and promise of our citizenship….This is the meaning of our liberty.” And I must add that it was wonderful, both for hope and a bit of retribution, that the cameras cut away to former President Bush as Obama said:

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 of ideals which inspired the world...[which] assured the rule of law and the rights of man.

On the other hand....

When I go back to the keyboard, rewind the video, glance at the world via Internet feeds, I have a great concern.

US Presidents have to talk tough. American political culture doesn't accept Presidential weaklings (did you notice Jimmy Carter on the platform?) in either rhetoric or action. So Obama had to combine the offers of friendship with the warning that, if you oppose the US, "we will defeat you". He had to speak of common dangers to the planet but also to affirm that, in addressing those challenges, "America must lead". He directly addressed "the Muslim world" for a relationship based "on mutual trust and respect" but also chastised those who are corrupt and deceitful. He offered peace but only "if you will unclench your fist".

This speech --- in the revival of hope, the call for unity, the offer of friendship, and the warning to America's enemies --- is a descendant of John F. Kennedy's famous 1961 Inaugural. And thus it should be noted that, while the Kennedy Administration could be commemorated for its calls for global development and progress, it could also be remembered for the confrontations that included the Bay of Pigs and the escalation of the disastrous involvement in Vietnam.

Is Obama's invocation of "America", one which stemmed from and added to the hope of today, one that is going to be offered to others, both friend and foe? Or will it be delivered in the terms of "you lead, we follow"? Freedom is a wonderful concept, but in the current conflicts that always face the Obama Administration, it is an abstraction beyond political, economic, and military realities.

So part of the concern is that, on the day after the Inauguration, the rhetoric of today has to meet the reality of what has happened in Israel, Palestine, and Gaza in the last month. It is that his reference to the Muslim world with trust and respect but also with a response to the "clenched fist" must define itself with the troubled relationship with Iran. It is that Obama's warning "we will defeat you" has to confront the complexity of the unrest in Pakistan. It is that, with a broken United Nations and damage to the notion of international co-operation, "America must lead" has to address the response of others that "America must listen". It is that his promise that the United States will abide by "a Charter of law" has to negotiate through the legal and political challenges that will threaten his promise to close Guantanamo Bay (not to mention, his silence on other American detention facilities such as Camp Bagram in Afghanistan).

And, at the end of this day, I note --- very narrowly, perhaps, but I believe pertinently --- that Obama only moved beyond generalities to refer specifically to two other countries. He promised that the United States would leave Iraq to its people, an allusion to the timetable for the withdrawal of US combat troops (but not, it should be noted, all troops). And he immediately followed that with an American commitment to the "security of Afghanistan".

I hope I'm wrong. But, for all the hope of a new America, the rhetoric that precedes and underpins this America --- the rhetoric of our vigiliance, our "common defense" against enemies, our extension of freedom --- means that Barack Hussein Obama will double the US troop level in Afghanistan from 30,000 to 60,000. And when he does so, with many crowing that he is simply following Bush's War on Terror rather than rejecting it, with others declaring that our liberalism requires such interventions, he will open Pandora's Box on his own war.

I hope I'm wrong. But if that happens, it will be hard to reach back to the hope of today. Hard to reach back not because we didn't believe in the vision of this historic moment, but because we did.

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Reader Comments (12)

Well said, Scott.
I share your unease. Before the Israeli assault on the Gazans, I imagined I would be excited today - another momentous milestone achieved, filled with pride and promise. It looked on the news as if Obama has already started giving back the confidence and self-esteem the American public seems to have hemorrhaged in the last eight years. Nonetheless, I believe the last three weeks have thrown into stark relief the damage the previous administration has done on the global stage, and very publicly too. After reading about the State Departments expected composition, given the absence of any Arab-American, how will/can it be different?

January 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMae

I've listened to deconstruction of the speech all day, and I'm not convicted by any of what I've heard. As you say here, it's a set piece that has to be performed. It's mostly for the home crowd, to lift up the liberals, pacify the conservatives, and to reassure the wavering. It's not a policy speech. It's not a mission statement. It's a variation on the same theme we've heard about 40 other times. You can't read anything into it about what will happen in Iraq/Afghanistan. You're not going to consider any policy successful w/o a full and quick withdrawal from both countries. So why take apart the speech because it doesn't lay that out as policy -- when you know before the speech that it won't be the policy, and you know that even if it were, it wouldn't be the point of the speech?

At least you raise serious issues. The level of analysis here is, for the most part, concerned with the lack of memorable, quotable sound bites. "Ich bin ein Obama," for goodness' sake.

January 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMichael+

Obama did not condemn the Israeli government for its recent war crimes in Gaza, nor announce either an immediate withdrawal of Pentagon troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and an immediate end to U.S. military aid to all Middle Eastern governments by February 1, 2009 in his inauguration/"media coronation" speech--despite his "anti-war" campaign rhetoric in 2008.

Nor did Obama finally commit the U.S. government to a pacifist foreign policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament (that U.S. pacifists like Martin Luther King have always advocated) in his inauguration/"media coronation" speech.

So, despite the U.S. imperialist-dominated global media machine that's been denying anti-imperialist African-American radical activists and writers (like the folks who put together the Black Agenda Report website) any opportunity to criticize Obama's "send more troops to Afghanistan" militaristic perspective, people in Europe shouldn't be surprised if an Obama Administration fails to immediately end the current "era of permanent war" that the militaristic U.S. white corporate power structure has inflicted upon the rest of the globe.

January 21, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterbobf

I'm not sure what people expect from his inauguration speech. It's rhetoric not policy.

January 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCanuckistan

and take a look at the text of Bush's 2001 inaugural speech--some of his rhetoric would not have been out of place yesterday.

January 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCanuckistan

and re: Afghanistan, Scott I think, rightly or wrongly, there is a determination to defeat the Taliban and not simply to push them into negotiations--at least that's what someone in position to know told me.

January 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCanuckistan

Fair points, Michael, but my concern arose because I knew the speech would be followed today by confirmation, and possibly announcement, of the "surge" in Afghanistan and by the background that there will not be full withdrawal from Iraq.

As you can probably tell, I'm conflicted. I wanted to jump up with "Ich bin ein Obama", not just because of the speech but because of likely aftermath. I can't quite get out of the crouching position at this point....

January 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterScott Lucas

Interesting analysis all day, Scott. I share your mixed feelings, and have mixed feelings about my mixed feelings. Despite my cynicism about American policy, I thought it was a beautiful moment. The cultural and symbolic mechanisms marked, I thought, an important generational shift--Rich Warren (for better or, really, worse), Aretha Franklin, Yo Yo Ma--that was paralleled by the 'youth vote's' support of Obama. But there's something as untoward in this sort of liberal adulation as there is in right wing flag waving, a palpable, crushing need to believe. Is it about hope or maybe just relief that Bush is gone? I can't quite get on board, but I have had those moments of, 'Wow! Is America great er what?'

A couple other points, and I know you hit some of them in other posts: (1) Jesus, Cheney. Show some pride and get your ass out of that chair, you old f***. A calculated image fer sure. (2) John Roberts, WTF? Did you not look at the oath of office? What is it, like 35 words? If I were a superstitious sort, I'd wonder if that oath isn't a symbol of things to come. (3) Compare Warren's invocation with Lowry's closing: One thanks Jesus for 'bringing me' salvation (or whatever he said) and the other carries the weight of oppression and the joy of justice in his voice. Key contrast for me and an indication of Obama's cultural savvy.

January 21, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdtkline

Obama will appointe an Arab-American as his Middle East envoy today. His name is George Mitchell. You have no idea how powerful the Jewish lobby is, they already voted overwhelming favor Israel before Obama sworn in. You need to remember he is young politician, the "good old boy" network is not easy to take down even he is president. Criticize Israel in public almost impossible, is not he doesn't want to, it's disaster for a new president get into political storm in day one. he has to find other way. please be patient.

January 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterShueG

I personally thought Obama's delivery was flat, except for the conclusion, and that there was nothing really memorable in terms of content.

I also expect that he will end up disappointing his supporters because a. he is a politician and b. he has to work within an existing political system. I also think that he will be far more radical and progressive on the domestic front than with regards to foreign policy.

But maybe we should cut him a little slack since he's only been an office for a day and he has a pretty big mess to clean up. It also might be useful if critics offered alternatives. For example, what should the U.S. do with the prisoners who are being held at Guantanamo? That is a huge mess that has been left Obama by Bush and there is no easy solution to it.

January 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCanuckistan

"I also think that he will be far more radical and progressive on the domestic front than with regards to foreign policy."

--Reverse discrimination has had devastating effects. It's rampant already and it will only accelerate under an Obama administration. His spinmeisters paint him as a "post-racial candidate" but some of the things he says are extremely race and gender centric.

--He and his wife founded Public Allies, which is an anti-male, anti-white, anti-capitalist organization. His wife ran it at one time. Don't accept the moderate-sounding mission statement.

--Ranked as the most liberal senator by the National Journal.

--His belief in "redistributive justice". This is signature Marxism.

--His relations with Ayres, Wright, Davis, and others. How can anyone attend a church for 20 years and not know what the minister is talking about!?

--Path to citizenship for 12 million illegals. The social costs will be HUGE.

--Mammoth government spending on schemes on projects that corporations themselves would never invest in! Taxpayers will fall further into the pit.

--Obama's proposal for easier unionization. If 51% of a workplace's workers sign on, it's unionized. Unionization yields a NET NEGATIVE to the country. Obama didn't learn from the steel industry. It seems he is too blind to see what is going on in Detroit!

The American people elected a liberal ideologue. He is pro-Black Liberation Theology all the way. And he will have the support of a liberal Congress and a flamingly liberal media. In 8 years, America will be an impoverished country...and it will take decades for it to recover.

January 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDave


My prediction:

Reverse discrimination will take its seat at the FRONT OF THE BUS.

Merit will take its seat at the BACK OF THE BUS.

I hope I'm wrong.

January 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDave

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