Thursday, January 22, 2009

Obama's Inaugural Address

I'm still mulling over Obama's speech and what it means. In the meantime, what follows are (mostly) some of my first impressions from Tuesday.

They're part of a conversation with Mark Kleiman at The Reality-Based Community. Tuesday evening I sent a message with some of my preliminary thoughts to Mark (partly in response to Mark's immediate reflections on the speech and the event--here & here--which are worth reading). He graciously suggested posting my message on his blog, and you can find it there (together with some of his commentary) as: Jeff Weintraub on Obama and the civic-republican tradition.

You can also read it below, along with a transcript of the speech itself. And you can watch Obama deliver his (First?) Inaugural HERE.

--Jeff Weintraub

Hi Mark,

I just read your thoughts on Obama's Inaugural Address, and (as usual) I found them perceptive and largely on-target. I think we agree that it was not one of his soaring speeches (and was not designed to contain a lot of applause lines), but it was eloquent in a sober and austere way. I felt a kind of tension there as I listened to it, which made parts of the speech seem almost odd to me, and perhaps that was due in part to a characteristic of the speech that I think you noted correctly--that is, in some ways it was "a text for the eye more than the ear." But that's only part of the reason, because when I read the text my overall impressions were not that different from what they were when I heard it.

For my part, when my wife and I watched the inauguration on TV, I found myself overcome with emotion to an extent that genuinely surprised me. Even the invocation by Pastor Rick Warren (!), who is hardly one of my favorite people, and which had a lot more Jesus in it than it should have, moved me almost to tears. Obama's speech, too. Even Joe the Biden's oath of office (which Justice Stevens, unlike Chief Justice Roberts, did not mess up). I guess when certain grand political rituals coincide with a historic occasion like this, the effect can be awe-inspiring.

I'm putting off writing down my own thoughts about the speech for my blog (and if I do post them at all, they'll be briefer and less substantial than yours were). But among other things, this speech once more reinforced an impression that struck me very early and very forcibly about Obama. You remark that a major theme of the speech has to do with the inextricable connection between freedom and responsibility (even "duties").
Insofar as a single dominant theme stands out in my memory, it was the responsibility of individual Americans to do their part in rebuilding the nation and the world.
This is right. One way to flesh this out, I think, is to frame it in a way that I did last January (Barack Obama on solidarity, citizenship, anti-semitism, & the legacy of Martin Luther King) and which my friend Andy Markovits and I spelled out more fully in May (Obama and the Progressives: A Curious Paradox):
[....] People often talk about Obama's soaring rhetoric, but what's the content of that rhetoric? To put it in terms that the Founders would have understood immediately, Obama has made civic patriotism and republican virtue central to the message of his whole campaign. He has consistently championed a politics of solidarity, active citizenship, national community, and the common good. Like Lincoln, Obama portrays the United States as a nation defined by certain constitutive ideals and charged with the project of imperfectly but continually striving to achieve, extend, and enrich these ideals in concrete ways ("in order to form a more perfect union"). Furthermore, Obama affirms and celebrates "the promise of America" (adding that "I know the promise of America because I have lived it"), while insisting that to fulfill that promise requires constant effort, civic engagement, shared sacrifices, and conflict as well as cooperation.

The most crucial requirement ("the great need of the hour," in a formulation borrowed from Martin Luther King) is active moral and political solidarity--not only to empower oppressed and underprivileged groups, but to bind together and revitalize a more comprehensive national community. [....]
That evocation of solidarity and responsibility conjoined with republican liberty, of the need to revitalize the political community (not as an alternative to government action, but as a necessary complement to it), and of a politics of the common good runs through his Inaugural speech, too--in a sober and serious tone, as I said. These themes tie together many of the specific passages you picked out.

And there's even an explicit invocation of virtue, which is more dicey nowadays. In fact, "hope and virtue" come together in the concluding paragraphs.

=> Of course, this talk of "virtue" is introduced and legitimized by quoting it from none other than the Alpha Founder George Washington. But did you notice something interesting about that historical tidbit?

The Washington-related passage in Obama's second-to-last paragraph referred to the terrible winter of 1776, when Washington's consistently-beaten army had retreated to Valley Forge and seemed about to melt away.

[JW: Mentioning Valley Forge was a slip on my part. The winter at Valley Forge came a year later, in 1777. In December 1776 Washington's army was camped across the Delaware River from Trenton, New Jersey. On December 26--my birthday--Washington gambled everything with an attack on the Hessian troops quartered in Trenton ... and won his first real victory.]

Obama's speech says:
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].
Now, what struck me immediately is that those quoted words are Thomas Paine's. They come from Paine's pamphlet "The American Crisis" (printed December 23, 1776), which begins with that well-known passage ...
THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. [Etc.]
According the standard historical account (or legend) I remember learning in my youth [recounted here, for example], Paine actually wrote that tract sitting in Washington's camp, and Washington really did have it read aloud to inspire the troops.

(Did it actually happen that way? I'm not sure, but it's plausible, and it certainly could have happened that way. Perhaps a historian could confirm it. But that's neither here nor there. Whether or not Washington actually had Paine's tract read out to the troops, they're the sort of thing he would have had proclaimed.)

Still, it's a pity that poor old Tom Paine couldn't get some recognition in Obama's inaugural speech. (Reagan quoted him explicitly, you will recall, at the 1980 Republican convention.) Paine's revolutionary pamphlets were phenomenal best-sellers at the time, of course. And when Paine's audience read those words, they knew exactly what "virtue" meant in that context--that is, citizen virtue. That's what we need, for sure (among other things).

=> Well, now we have to hope for the best.

Yours for republican virtue,
Jeff Weintraub

Mark Kleiman comments:

Two quibbles on secondary points:

1. As noted in an update to my earlier post, the story that Paine's words were written at Valley Forge can't be true; they were published the previous winter. It's still possible that Washington ordered them read at Valley Forge.

[JW: As I explained earlier, I confused the issue by carelessly mentioning Valley Forge. Washington's camp in December 1776 wasn't at Valley Forge--that came a year later, in the winter of 1777--but once we correct for the actual location, the story is historically plausible.]

2. I find "too much Jesus" - a reaction I've encountered from others - a surprising response to Warren's invocation. Mine was just the opposite. Warren quoted Jesus (whom he referred to first by his Hebrew name, Yeshua) as I might quote Socrates: that is, as a human teacher to whom Warren is personally indebted for various insights. That's a long way from identifying Jesus as the Messiah, let alone worshipping Jesus as God.

Warren recited the Lord's Prayer, but didn't call it that; stripped of the title, it's recognizably (even in English translated from Greek) a very nice but fairly conventional piece of Hebrew religious poetry, which wouldn't be out of place in the Book of Psalms or the Saturday-morning synagogue service.

So while atheists and practitioners of non-Abrahamic religions might reasonably have felt left out, Warren's prayer wasn't really a specifically Christian one, let alone an Evangelical one.

And except for the mention of Jesus, the rest of the invocation could have been given just as well by a mainstream liberal Protestant minister, or a liberal rabbi. If Obama-ism has no greater triumph than persuading a mega-church entrepreneur to give such an ecumenical prayer, then I say, on behalf of my fellow fighters against superstition and bigotry, dayyenu! It is sufficient unto us.

[JW: On reflection, I think Mark is right about this--or at least more right than I was..]

Update Just in case you had any doubt, former Maryland Governor Bob Erlich wants to remind you that contemporary Republicans are not civic republicans. Oh, and they're a little bit literacy-challenged, as well.

New York Times
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address

Following is the transcript of President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address, as transcribed by CQ Transcriptions:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you.

CROWD: Obama! Obama! Obama! Obama!

PRESIDENT OBAMA: My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.

I thank President Bush for his service to our nation...


... as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath.

The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.

Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

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, that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.


On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.

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.


In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less.

It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.

Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor -- who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died in places Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed.

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.


For everywhere we look, there is work to be done.

The state of our 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 costs.

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. All this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.

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.

MR. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.

Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.

And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched.

But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.


As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.

Our founding fathers faced with perils that 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 we are ready to lead once more.


Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.

They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy, guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We'll begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard- earned peace in Afghanistan.

With old friends and former foes, we'll work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat and roll back the specter of a warming planet.

We will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense.

And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that, "Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."


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 nonbelievers. 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.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society's ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.

To those...


To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.


To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.

And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages.

We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service: a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.

And yet, at this moment, a moment that will define a generation, it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.

It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break; the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours.

It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old.

These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.

What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence: the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall. And why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.


So let us mark this day in 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.

Thank you. God bless you.


And God bless the United States of America.