Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Some Quick Thoughts on the Speech
It was fine, if not up to the level of Obama's best from the last five years: a declaration of principles that neither minimized the daunting challenges our country is facing nor our past demonstrated ability to meet them. Probably like most inaugural addresses--pretty much all of them, in fact, other than Lincoln's second, FDR's first, and Kennedy's only--it will not be much remembered. The occasion didn't require Obama's full oratorical powers; the visual reality was more than sufficient.

But I did find one note in the speech very encouraging.
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. And those of us who manage the public's dollars 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.

My contention about Obama for two years now has been that he might have presidential greatness within his grasp owing to a rare ability to stay focused on ends while remaining more or less agnostic as to means. Lincoln and Roosevelt, perhaps our greatest presidents, shared this outlook. FDR's pledge of "bold, persistent experimentation" in seeking policies to ameliorate the Great Depression stood in marked contrast to the ideological rigidity of the outgoing Hoover administration. To a lesser extent, recent and more modestly successful presidents such as Reagan and Clinton managed to overcome political orthodoxy, albeit usually under duress from a Congress controlled by the opposition.

To be sure, sometimes this pragmatic inclination did not translate as noble: consider this statement of Lincoln's as to the objective of the Civil War.
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

It is important to note that this did not alter his personal view: "I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free." And here we see an interesting conflict between idealism and pragmatism: while the evil of slavery, the obliteration of human potential it caused, seems utterly inarguable to us today, this was not a majority view a century and a half ago. "Saving the Union" was a cause around which the public could rally; emancipation, no matter how much we might view it today as a nobler purpose, was not. Lincoln, supremely canny politician that he was, understood this, and also understood--this statement notwithstanding--that the preservation of the Union probably meant the eradication of slavery. ("I believe this government cannot permanently endure, half slave and half free.") But any argument would do if it served to advance the mission.

Obama will swing for the fences: beyond steering the economy through its current crisis, he wants to provide universal health care, take on entitlement reform, and start action to mitigate the effects of climate change. Any of those would rank as the signature accomplishment of most administrations; getting at them all in eight years, while also handling foreign policy crises and ongoing diplomacy as well as the inevitable problems that crop up at home, is ambitious within shouting distance of delusion. But as John Heilemann notes, he at least realizes that a president can't seek to accomplish great things while remaining in thrall to ideology. Inevitably, Obama will take actions that antagonize the liberal-haters on the right; just as surely, he'll disappoint the purists on the left. (Indeed, he's already done both these things.) Yet he seems to understand, as surprisingly few presidents have, that ultimately success is found not in the view of those who squawk the loudest, but in actions taken, legislation passed and lives improved.

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