A few thoughts about the inaugural address–a speech that seemed to want to please everyone. But first, some context.
It makes sense that a kid who learned how to adapt and fit in in places as diverse as Hawaii and Indonesia, and with relatives from places as disparate as Kansas and Kenya, gets really good at being all things to all people.
This is something that several knowledgeable, sympathetic observers noted throughout the campaign. For example in David Mendell’s semi-official biography, Obama: From Promise to Power we are told that Barack Obama “is an exceptionally gifted politician whom throughout his life, has been able to make people of widely divergent vantage points see in him exactly what they want to see.”
And Cassandra Butts, a friend of the President’s from law school days and now an associate at the ultra-liberal Center for American Progress was quoted in a worshipful article in Rolling Stone thusly: “Barack has become a kind of human Rorschach test.People see in him what they want to see.”
Of course, this gift for blending, chameleon-like, into variety of surroundings created the only real problems candidate Obama experienced on his otherwise charmed campaign journey.
Remember the video tape that surfaced of the candidate speaking to a group of super rich elites in San Francisco? It was there he made the comment about us hillbilly folks clinging to guns and religion out of economic frustration. The comments were perfectly tailored for his immediate, homogeneous audience but disastrous when exposed to to a wider public.
President Obama’s brilliant shape-shifting superpower also illuminates the great mystery that had an entire nation collectively scratching its collective head. Namely, how do we reconcile the Barack Obama we see on the campaign trail with a guy who would be an admiring member of Jeremiah Wright’s church for 20 years?
It also explains why a few intelligent prolife advocates like Doug Kmiec could rationalize voting for the man who repeatedly promised to use his presidential powers to authorize appropriating your and my tax dollars to fund abortions around the world–and who arguably has one of the most extreme pro-abortion stances in the history of presidential politics.
And it explains why the logic of small government champions like Christopher Buckley could get twisted into a pretzeline shape that leads to voting for the man whose campaign promises add up to creating the hugest government in the history of either hugeness or governments.
As noted, people tend to see in him what they want to see. And he knows it.
Which leads us to yesterday’s inaugural speech. . .
The speech seemed to underwhelm almost everyone who heard it. Of course, expectations were impossibly high. But the speech giver was also faced with an impossible challenge–the entire world was watching. Instead of a speaking to a largely homogeneous group like Democratic primary voters, he had the most diverse audience possible.
So what’s a chameleon to do when standing against a rainbow striped wall?
Which is precisely why the speech contained a little morsel of something for everyone but didn’t satisfy the appetite of anyone.
Yes there was some soaring and inspiring language that would have been just as at home in a Ronald Reagan address. I particularly liked:
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.
But there were also a number of petty swipes at the outgoing administration. For example:
We will restore science to its rightful place . . .
Right. No more making national security decisions using Urim and Thummim. We can now release all the brainiacs President Bush had rounded up and locked in the White House basement.
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.
Oh yes, I forgot. George W. Bush liked to use terrorism as an excuse to trample of civil liberties. It amused him.
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.
Actually, Great Britain in 1940 didn’t find our sturdy alliance or our convictions all that helpful as they were being blitzkrieged by the Luftwaffe. But they dang sure appreciated the bombs and tanks.
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.
So up until yesterday we were being indifferent to suffering outside our borders? Really? $15 billion in African AIDS relief since 2003. Back in May, the left-leaning Center for Global Development wrote: “The administration of George W. Bush has ramped up foreign aid spending to unprecedented levels and has implemented a number of important foreign aid initiatives . . .”
Higher and higher the moral condescension rolled:
“. . . we are ready to lead once more.”
“. . . guided by these principles once more. . .”
Of course, these elements of the speech were custom tailored to reflect the mixture of Bush loathing and relief of the gathered multitude and the billions of other Bush Derangement Syndrome sufferers around the world. To paraphrase Churchill: Never in the field of political conflict have so many felt so superior with so little cause.
Clearly, the crafting of this speech was a tightrope walk. Every phrase, every word, is analyzed, debated and parsed. And one paragraph in particular embodies the highwire balancing act President Obama attempted to walk. At first hearing, it sounded like an admirable and honorable shout out to our men and women and uniform and our fallen heroes:
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.
Go back and take a look at that “not only” in that third sentence. There is some brilliant wordsmithing going on here.
Ordinarily, any praise of military service or speaking in honoring terms of soldiers starts eyes rolling and molars grinding among big swaths of the Democratic base. The Code Pink protesters screaming obscenities at the Marine recruiters on college campuses didn’t just work their guts out to get Obama elected only to hear their sensitive guy hero start talking like B1 Bob Dornan. That’s why the second half of that paragraph is there.
What the President is telling his pacifist, America-has-always-been-the-bad-guy fans is this: The sacrificial impulse that leads young people to enlist in the military is good, just misdirected. It is “this spirit that must inhabit us all.”
Keep in mind that candidate Obama raised eyebrows when, back in July, he told a Colorado Springs audience:
“We cannot continue to rely on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives that we’ve set. We’ve got to have a civilian national security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded.”
At the time of the statement, the most common responses were, “Huh?,” “Wha?,” and “What in sheol is the man talking about?”
Certainly at a practical level, the statement makes no sense. But in the light of President Obama’s frequent and forceful statements about universal “service” and “sacrifice,” the statement tends to send a chill down the spine. As did that paragraph in his inaugural.
For a full view of President Obama’s campaign rhetoric on national service, check out this American Thinker piece.
As the saying goes, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” And it seems that to a community organizer, every challenge looks like . . . a reason to draft all of us into a new kind of army.