The Long View 2009-01-20: A New Era of Responsibility

John's 2009 commentary on President Obama’s first inaugural is a good reminder of how quickly the kind of quotidian commentary that many blogs specialized in quickly loses salience. However, I do find it interesting to look for items of more enduring interest. Here, John suggests that the administration of Barack Obama was going to be largely continuous with that of George W. Bush, which in retrospect turned out to be correct.

A New Era of Responsibility

The title of this posting is what I understand to be the intended tagline for President Obama's Inaugural Address. If it was so intended, it seems to me rather limp for the purpose, but the address as a whole was very fine, as was the Inaugural ceremony generally. We must note, however, that the president's minor flubbing of the oath of office is likely to become as famous as Neil Armstrong's flubbing of the first words on the Moon. After the telecast of the inauguration, I suggested in the lounge at work that maybe the mistake made Joe Biden president. The proposition was ill received.

In any case, according to the words of the address, here is how the president evidently views his presidency:

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.

"A New Age"? In certain circles, that phrase will haunt the president as persistently as Bush Senior was haunted by the innocent use of the phrase "New World Order." Outside the cultic milieu, however, this passage is significant for two points.

First, it states in almost the first words of the Obama presidency that the United States is at war. President Obama's election was made possible in no small part by people who believe that the United States is not at war, and who believed they were supporting a candidate who would treat terrorism, to the extent there really is such a thing, as a police matter. How he managed to enlist the support of these people is a minor mystery. The recusant Spengler's suggestion that Barack Obama has the power to cloud men's minds is unfortunate, and has been noted.

Second, while the current situation no doubt merits the term "crisis," we must note that, on the economic front, so far it feels less like a natural disaster than like a prolonged software glitch. If this era is also a crisis in the Strauss & Howe sense, which I am inclined to think it is, then its evolution is likely to consist of the synthesis of the two areas, foreign and domestic, into one.

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.

For a candidate who was supposed to be secular humanism incarnate, Barack Obama wound up using as much theological language in his inaugural address as John Kennedy did, and to much the same effect. What intrigues me, though, is the term better history. This smacks of the idea, perhaps most fully developed by John Crowley, that history is malleable without being a mere convention, that different futures can remember different pasts. It has been a long time since there was an American Left that regarded the teaching of history as something other than an occasion for subversion; it may be that President Obama wants to change that, for reasons we will consider in a moment.

Many commentators have noted, with mounting irritation, the many signals of continuity that the incoming administration has made with its predecessor. Indeed, President Obama went out of his way to preface his remarks with thanks to George Bush for a smooth transition. And look: here is an actual ‘Bushism’:

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions...

That use of "some" annoyed me more than anything else Bush Junior did, including the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. If you have opponents, name them, or at least outline their arguments.

In these sentences, we find a rare misstep and an important fact:

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. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works

The libertarian position that the president seems to be dismissing is not cynical but principled. The people who genuinely hold it do so as a set of ethical postulates. They would continue to hold it even if they were persuaded that libertarianism produced worse economic results than, say, Keynesianism, just as some conservatives believed during the early Cold War that democratic capitalist societies were in some ways economically inferior to Leninist societies. The larger point the president made, however, correct: "government" is today no longer assumed to be the problem.

As we noted above, the president's address was by no means an attempt to declare the War on Terror a false alarm. We might also note that his commendation of the troops now serving did not characterize them as victims in need of rehabilitation, a common trope on the left. He did, however, offer this cryptic word of comfort to his increasingly disgruntled antiwar followers:

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

I don't know what to make of that. I suspect I'm not supposed to.

In any case, towards the end of the address, we meet a hint that Barack Obama may be seeking to achieve a singular alchemy. The greatest unfilled niche in the ecology of American political culture in recent decades has been the space for a Leftist politics that incorporates "American Zionism," the insistence of American culture that America is a 'City on a Hill' with a salvific role in world history. Only during his third term did Franklin Delano Roosevelt manage to maintain this synthesis. Today, Barack Obama said this:

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 future is America. This makes George Bush's Second Inaugural sound modest.

* * *

President Obama's inauguration was the most historic event of the week. However, we should note that this item may be the most acutely important:

An al Qaeda affiliate in Algeria closed a base earlier this month after an experiment with unconventional weapons went awry, a senior U.S. intelligence official said Monday...

The official, who spoke on the condition he not be named because of the sensitive nature of the issue, said he could not confirm press reports that the accident killed at least 40 al Qaeda operatives, but he said the mishap led the militant group to shut down a base in the mountains of Tizi Ouzou province in eastern Algeria.... "We don't know if this is biological or chemical," the official said...

The story was first reported by the British tabloid the Sun, which said the al Qaeda operatives died after being infected with a strain of bubonic plague, the disease that killed a third of Europe's population in the 14th century. But the intelligence official dismissed that claim.

From Hell's point of view, any material that can kill 40 people by accident must be pretty good stuff.

Copyright © 2009 by John J. Reilly

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