I never quite know what to think about the whole Presidential inauguration thing. One the one hand there is always something stirring about being reminded of the sheer scale of the American experiment and something ennobling, even in tawdry times, about any refresher course in its greater hopes or expectations. On the other, well, there's the sheer scale of the pomp and flummery that makes one nostalgic for the theme park simplicity of monarchy. The Cult of the Presidency needs no encouragement of the type it enjoyed today.
And so to Barack Obama's speech. The best thing about it was that it was short. Alas, much of the rest of it appeared to have been produced by a standard Presidential Waffle & Platitude machine. Take the peroration, for instance:
Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.
That scarcely rises to the level of boilerplate.
Nevertheless and despite such unfortunate lapses, this was a surprisingly political speech. Climate change was referenced on more than one occasion whereas it had been posted missing during the election campaign last year. The intention to do something may be clear; the President's ability to actually pass a bill is open to some doubt. As Jonathan Chait says, House Republicans will determine the extent to which Obama's agenda survives contact with Congressional reality.
Even so, you could see why comparisons with Ronald Reagan are not so far-fetched. It is not so much that Obama can deliver a decent speech (though he's not as good a communicator as Reagan was) rather the manner in which he couches his argument. Obama, more than most politicians but rather like Reagan, talks in such a fashion that you suspect he finds it hard to believe that anyone could truly and honestly and decently disagree with him and certainly no intelligent or generous person could. The goodness of his ideas and his intentions is presumed; opposition to them must be predicated upon something sinister. Reagan could speak like this too and, like Obama, he made it seem as though there might be something disagreeable about disagreeing with the President.
Consider this passage:
We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.
Well, again, that's a bigger, bolder brand of liberalism than we heard on the campaign trail. (Of course it's hampered by some bad writing too: croplands?) By "hard choices" Obama also means you should agree with him.
That's fine. But even as the President decries false choices he sets up a series of false choices himself. Who says America faces a choice between "caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future"? No-one.
Even so, this was a speech making the case - in measured, cod-dignified tones - for government. It was a speech restating the case for government not just as an unfortunate necessity but, rather, an essential guarantor of American ideas and protector of American liberties. It was, in other words, a speech that, in some respects, harked back to the 1980s, not the Clinton years.
And, naturally, lurking beneath the bonnet was the simplest message of all: I won and I'm going to do something with my victory. How much political capital the president has accrued and how long he can keep some of it in reserve are different questions for a fresh day but for today at least here was Obama making a case for interventionism at home as well as abroad. (Only someone with no sense of the meaning of the term "isolationist" can actually believe the 44th president is any kind of isolationist).
Despite all this, there is a sense in which much of Obama's is already done. Major challenges lie ahead - most notably on the budget, immigration, securing his healthcare reforms, and, perhaps, climate change - but his most important achievement is already in the past. He won and then he won again. Unlike other presidents his importance lies in who he is, not what he does. That makes him an unusually personal president and may, I think, help explain the extremity of the reactions he provokes in the United States.
Obama will be remembered, above all, as the first black president. His presidency will be seen - fairly enough - as a kind of political rubicon that, once crossed, cannot be recrossed. I suspect the effects of this have yet to be fully felt or appreciated. But it also means that Obama could be a significant president - especially in terms of changing the culture - even if he never passed a bill of serious importance. Of course he aspires to rather more than that. Nothing less than refreshing mainstream liberalism for the modern age and, in the process, dominating his era just as completely as Ronald Reagan did his.
Perhaps the best - and most telling - line came early: "History tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing." Precisely. The government is here to help and those are not, at least not according to this president, terrifying words at all.