The Address established the state of crisis under which President Obama takes office. Eschewing scapegoats, he denounced a "collective failure to make hard choices" that has resulted in "a sapping of confidence" and "a nagging fear." He then announced what I take to be the main theme of the speech: a repudiation of ideology. Liberal and conservative dogmas are among the "childish things" Obama urged Americans to set aside.
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.
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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.* * *
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. 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.
I think Obama means this to an extent, but it also works to throw the burden of flexibility on the opposition. The pressure will be on Republicans to prove that they aren't opposing programs out of rigid ideological dogmatism. It won't do, the President suggests, for them to answer problems with catch-phrases and rhetoric along their usual lines of "private sector always beats public sector" and so forth. Meanwhile, Obama invites us to presume that all his proposals embody purely pragmatic reasoning rather than "liberal" dogma. Republicans may disagree, but their mere disagreement will end up looking dogmatic. The President's goal, I imagine, is to make any cry of "liberal" suspect. Would a liberal, at least as they've been defined in recent generations, say something like this?
Our journey has never been one of short-cuts 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.
That sounds like an endorsement of entrepreneurship to me, but in context it's a reminder that entrepreneurship is properly aimed toward the public good. All of the above, Obama said, did things for the benefit of future generations -- "for us," as he refrained. Approaching the close, he sounded quite like a conservative.
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.
But from that followed: "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." Arguably, this is not so much liberalism, though some will see it as such, but a call for a return of civic virtue as the Founders understood it before anyone heard of laissez-faire. Obama's challenge is to call people to save the country, and thus save themselves, rather than save themselves first.
These were the most interesting parts of the speech. The sections addressing foreign policy were predictable enough, but the nation's own crisis will define the Obama presidency. He has made a promise today, and it's our responsibility, if we approve, to hold him to it.