Friday, January 30, 2009

Analysis: President Barack Obama's Inaugural Address

Following are excerpts of President Barack Obama's inaugural address [CNN Transcript, RCP Transcript, January 20, 2009]:

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.

Comment: This is attributing a lot to the people who attended -- or even who watched -- Obama's inauguration. Did all of them clearly choose hope and unity over fear and discord, and did they all have that as a reason for attending? Did people attend in order to renounce petty grievances, false promises, recriminations and worn out dogmas? It sounds like Obama is offering up the dubious "Americans want..." assertion.

More to the point, what beliefs, views and attitudes, in particular, count as petty grievances, false promises, recriminations and worn out dogmas? Of course, we all oppose such things in the abstract: but different people are going to come to different conclusions about whether a certain belief is a worn out ideology or a proven fact, or whether a certain attitude is a petty grievance or a legitimate complaint.

Without being specific about what beliefs, views and attitudes people are supposed to be unburdening themselves of, aren't people likely to reach a self-serving conclusion? That is, won't they conclude that their OWN beliefs, views and attitudes are just fine the way they are, and that it's their OPPONENTS who must change THEIR beliefs, views and attitudes? And won't that leave us stuck with the "conflict and discord" that's already present?

I understand that Obama's speech is intended as inspirational rhetoric, but it should still be judged according to whether it makes clear, truthful assertions. Obama's words are so unspecific and ambiguous that it's unclear what, precisely, we are supposed to do in order to improve our conduct.

This, of course, is very common. When politicians make accusations of negative politics or call for us to set a higher standard of debate and unite as a country -- as Obama is doing here in his inaugural -- they typically speak in the abstract. They don't lay out clear standards and definitions of what counts as good behavior versus bad behavior, and then apply those standards in an even-handed way to specific examples.


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 like 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.

Comment: Again, this is attributing a lot to a fairly large group of people (akin to the "Americans want..." assertion). All the people who worked hard or sacrificed in the past, all the people to whom we owe gratitude for their past contributions, were ALL of them motivated by the ideals that Obama mentions?


Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed.

Comment: This sounds like a jab at special interests. But what is a special interest (or a "narrow" interest)? Which interests in particular are narrow, and which ones aren't? And why are narrow interests bad, or outweighed by interests that aren't narrow?

As usual, the derision of special interests (or "narrow" interests) is made in such a non-specific way that it's hard to figure out what it means, or what it should prompt us to do in particular.


We will restore science to its rightful place

Comment: This is an implicit criticism of the previous administration of President George W. Bush, which Obama disagrees with on matters such as global warming and climate change, as well as stem cell research.

Such disagreement is legitimate. But Obama's words don't cast Bush as disagreeing with particular scientific theories or about how our moral priorities to scientific research: he's deriding Bush as being opposed to science altogether.

That's a needless insult. If Obama thinks Bush is wrong on scientific matters, then he should defend that belief. But to imply that Bush doesn't care about science at all is going too far.


There are some who question the scale of our ambitions -- who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. ... 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 -- 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.

Comment: This is not a fair description of what people have been arguing about for the past several decades. The argument has ALWAYS been about whether or not government is working effectively: one group has argued that it isn't working effectively because it is too big (or that it does too much), and another group has argued that it isn't working effectively because it is not big enough (or that it doesn't do enough). And that's still the argument today.

Of course, that's not how these groups have described one another in this debate. Unfortunately (but predictably), they have routinely caricatured each other: the group that thinks government is too big and is doing too much says that their opponents just want bigger government REGARDLESS of whether it is effective and efficient; and the group that thinks government is too small and is doing too little says that their opponents just want smaller government REGARDLESS of whether it is effective and efficient.

Obama is wrong to say that there is somehow a different argument going on now than there was previously, and that "cynics" are failing to see that. We face today the same, perfectly reasonable debate that we have always faced: what consequences will result from different government policies and laws (which is an empirical question), and what values should the government be defending or furthering (which is a question of moral obligation and priorities)?

This debate has seldom been conducted in a reasonable, respectful manner, and it would be an improvement if we'd start having it in a civil, productive way.

But it's not correct to say that cynics are somehow missing out on the real issue at stake.


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 -- and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

Comment: Is there anyone who has advocated having no watchful eye whatsoever on the markets? Certainly, there's a legitimate debate about HOW MUCH government regulation and oversight of markets there should be. But Obama sounds like he's crafting the debate as being between those who call for some oversight and those who call for none at all. Is that accurate?

Obama also implicitly describes the previous administration's economic policies as "favoring the prosperous". That's arguably a caricature, since it makes it sound like Obama's opponents simply want to help the rich, when they would insist that they're rewarding (or trying not to punish) those who are productive.

There's a legitimate debate about whether economic policy should focus on compassion and aiding the needy or on merit and rewarding productivity. At the very least, it's not obvious which consideration should win when the two come into conflict. For Obama to describe his opponents as "favoring the prosperous" is to fail to appreciate all the moral considerations at stake in our debate about economics.

Obama and his allies are often caricatured in the same way, which can be illustrated by re-tooling Obama's own statement: "A nation cannot prosper when it taxes only the productive." I'm sure Obama wouldn't consider this statement to be a fair assessment of his policies. He shouldn't inflict the same unfairness on his opponents.


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

Comment: Obama is correct to say that our safety and our ideals (ideals such as liberty and human rights) are not always at odds. However, it's not obvious that they're NEVER at odds, either. Are they ALWAYS compatible? I doubt it.

Moral dilemmas (many examples of which you can find in the section on moral priorities) do exist, and safety and liberty will likely come into conflict on occasion.

When they do, what is Obama's solution? How does he prioritize safety and our ideals if and when they conflict?


Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with 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.

Comment: Again, this is attributing a lot to a large group of people (once more, see the "Americans want..." assertion). Did the generations who faced down fascism and communism really ALL share these beliefs about the use of force and alliances? There wasn't any disagreement among them?

Plus, is Obama claiming that the U.S. manifested "prudent use" of power in World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and other conflicts against fascism and communism? Is that claim correct?


To those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders

Comment: Is Obama claiming that, up until now, affluent nations have been indifferent to the suffering outside their borders? Is that claim correct?


Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends -- hard work and honesty, 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.

Comment: Obama is advocating that we return to the values of hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.

This means, of course, that he believes that we haven't been exercising these values recently. Is that true, though?

More to the point, what do each of these values really mean? What do they demand of us in terms of our behavior? What are we to do if these values conflict?

In particular, what does "fair play" mean? I take "fair play" to be a synonym for "justice" and "fairness". But justice is an ambiguous term, involving distinct considerations such as need, merit, culpability and equality. (Note the above discussion about economic policy.) And their application is also controversial. So, what exactly does Obama mean when he says we've failed to engage in fair play, and what does he mean when he says we're going to engage in fair play now?

Without spelling out what exactly he means when he invokes these values, it's hard to say whether or not we've been failing to live up to them, or what we have to do in order to start living up to them.


Again, I realize that inaugural speeches are supposed to be about inspiration, not detail. But it's difficult to know (or to evaluate) what we're being inspired to do if the details aren't given.

As with many politicians and political speeches, much of what Obama said is so vague or ambiguous that it's hard to judge whether we should be inspired by it.

-- Civ.

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