Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Annotated Speech

Here's Obama's inaugural speech, with my comments:

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.

So what about that oath? Not to the text, exactly. Is that a problem? Does he need to have a do-over? The text in Article II, Section 1, says, "Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation:--'I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.' " Roberts botched it. If Obama just says it out loud, correctly, is he empowered to conduct himself as President? What if he doesn't?

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 forbearers, 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.

We are clearly in a pretty bad recession. But beyond that, I'm having a bit of trouble deciding just how panic-stricken we all should be. The rest of the world certainly doesn't love us, but they hardly ever do--sometimes they're more vocal about it. I think the world respects us, even though they'd like to reduce our power. No surprise there.

So the depth of the alleged crisis hinges on how bad the recession is. We should be worried. But isn't Obama doing the same thing for which Bush has been pilloried lo these last seven years? Isn't he using fear for political advantage?

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.

A bit of an odd tone here. He needs to say this, of course. We have lost our confidence and we badly need to recover it. But Obama almost sounds like a scold here.

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.

I've now had 24 hours to let this sink in. Boy, what a load of self-righteous crap. One man's childishness is another's principled opposition. Or has Obama already forgotten his own stand on the Iraq war and how he justified it?

Don't get me wrong: I'm all in favor of improving the tone and conducting politics with neither vitriol nor hatred. But Obama has, in the past, shown a keen understanding that opposition is the best friend a good law or policy can have. Only through principled resistance can the inevitable weak spots in any policy be identified and shored up.

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.

Would anyone care to identify those that seek only the pleasures of riches and fame?

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

This one's really weird. There's an appeal to the Vietnam generation in here but nothing for those fighting in Iraq (twice) or Afghanistan. This is the point where I started to get very concerned. There's lots of red meat in here for sixties-era liberals, but considerably less for modern pragmatists, progressive or otherwise. Since Obama's main appeal is his pragmatism, this is disappointing at best, alarming at worst.

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.

"Standing pat" = "very bad behavior." Standing pat is often the right thing to do--not always, but often. I don't revolutionary change except where it's blindingly obvious that it's needed. There are several areas where that's true (the current monetary crisis, the lack of an energy policy that makes sense, the lack of any form of civility in government) but there are plenty of areas where you can only make things worse.

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

Ooooo, maybe it really is the Great Depression! Or maybe just 1936.

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.

I'm behind him on the electric grid and high-speed internet initiatives. But, are we really suffering reduced growth because of our highway system? Yeah, yeah, maintenance is important, but is that what he's saying here?

We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its costs.

And if health care stubbornly gets more expense in spite of technology's wonders or, more likely, because of them, what then?

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.

Sun... check. Wind power... check. Ethanol... check? And of course, nuclear... huh. Imagine that. No nukes. What a surprise!

I'm inclined to give Obama a lot of rope in the hopes that any energy policy is better than no energy policy at all. But let's set down a marker right now, shall we? Obama is predicting both a climatic crisis from carbon-based fuels and an economic crisis as the supply of those fuels slowly declines. So it's important to try lots of things in order to generate an optimal solution to the 21st century's energy demands. But solar, wind, and ethanol all have significant technical hurdles to overcome before they can become anything like a panacea.

Nuclear, on the other hand, has no hurdles. The waste disposal problem isn't a technical problem; it's a problem of public will. We could meet all of our demand with nuclear power alone. We could drive our carbon emissions down by at least 60% (assuming that electric cars don't pan out, otherwise emissions could go even lower) with nuclear power alone.

If Obama fails to install a robust nuclear program and fails to plan for an increased nuclear role, then he is guilty of extreme energy malfeasance. He will be judged very harshly if none of the other renewable technologies takes hold strongly enough to solve the problem.

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.

Barry baby, we all love ya, but some of those "stale political arguments", like being cautious when adopting revolutionary change and paying for your government as you go, rather than running up truly alarming debts, are not very stale.

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.

Another weirdy here. Where programs don't help families or retirees or improve personal care, we'll cancel programs? What does this say about the defense department? Commercial supports? Policing programs? Hell, what does it say about energy programs?

And those of us who manage the public's knowledge 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.

If this is the clarion call to increased openness, cool. But if it is, why is it so, uh, obscure?

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.

Calls for regulation of markets? Well, OK. But the "ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart"? What does this mean? That the government will give you a job if you want one? Socialist claptrap.

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.

I think I hear Miracle Max in the distance, saying, "Goodbye, boys! Have fun stormin' the castle!" It's a nice line, but it's a cheap line. The expensive part comes when you can cut some corners to vastly improve your odds of avoiding an attack or live (or die) by your principles. Still, Obama gets to have a little naivete on his first day. Then we'll see.

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

...and internment camps and military tribunals and forced rationing and J. Edgar Hoover. Again, lovely sentiments. Let's watch the self-righteousness, OK?

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.

Nice tap-dance on Iraq. But just what is a "hard-earned peach in Afghanistan"? And, given that we've just said that we're not going to wield power for power's sake, what exactly is the goal? And what is the national interest?

Obama has a long history of assuming that the Pottery Barn rule of international conquest trumps all other considerations when it comes to Afghanistan. We broke it, so we have to fix it. But he forgets that we broke it because we needed to eliminate a threat. That threat no longer exists in Afghanistan. It moved next door, to Pakistan. Afghanistan is a pile of rocks. It would be lovely if democracy flowered out of the mountains and the deserts there, but it's not the main requirement. The main requirement is to deny terrorists safe haven. Obama needs to understand the priorities better.

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

Sounds lovely.

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.

Encouraging. There's a very small sop to the multiculturalist crowd in here, but Obama seems genuinely to understand that America's power comes from its citizens being Amercians of the unhypenated kind.

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 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.

Yup, very nice. Boilerplate.

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.

Best lines of the whole speech, and profoundly comforting to conservatives, especially after everything that came before it.

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 nine 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.
Final thoughts: This is mostly red meat for the Left. It is profoundly in conflict with the image of moderation that Obama has projected through the general election and the transition. Still, if all the Left gets is a pretty speech and the rest of us get the benefit of a cool, pragmatic President, we'll be doing quite well.

I wish our new President very good luck. He'll need it. I expect to disagree with him at least half of the time. I hope that he takes that disagreement (or, rather, the collective disagreement that emerges from the conservative zeitgeist) in the spirit in which it is offered. If he can co-opt criticism and transform it into excellent policy, he'll be a great President. If he can't, he'll be Jimmy Carter.

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