Barracked by Obama’s Oratory

‘In the gap where arguments and examples should be, the President invoked God, attacked the Republicans and invoked spectacle’

Dispatches US Politics

Read my lips: Obama with Defense Secretary-designate Chuck Hagel

Of the 57 inaugural addresses delivered by presidents of the United States, a mere 17 have been second inaugurals. Very occasionally — as in the case of Abraham Lincoln’s, which is inscribed on a wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington — and in the case of George W. Bush’s, the second inaugural has been better than the first. So what trajectory is America going to follow for the next four years, as judged by Obama’s second inaugural address on the National Mall?

Second inaugurals have seen soaring, but also disappointing, oratory, ranging wildly in terms of their rhetoric, yet rarely — if ever — has one revealed actual cowardice, which is what President Barack Obama’s did when he delivered it to an audience of hundreds of thousands from the West Front of the Capitol on Monday January 21.

It was cowardly because if he had enunciated the highlights of his policy agenda during the election only ten weeks previously, he would have lost. Gay marriage rights, climate change regulations, healthcare costs, entitlements, voting without proper ID and registration, the legalisation of illegal aliens, and gun control are all important issues in American politics. Yet they were ones that Obama either largely ignored or strenuously downplayed during the presidential election in order to win his “historic” 51.1 per cent to 47.2 per cent popular vote victory over Mitt Romney. Had he emphasised those issues in his campaign — which in his second inauguration speech he put at the top of his agenda for his next term — he would undoubtedly have put off the 2 per cent of electors who would have needed to change their votes in order for Romney to win. His true liberal agenda has only emerged now it is too late for the American people to vote against it.

In his 18-minute, 2,100-word speech, Obama delivered a paean to big government, something that only truly resonates with a minority of Americans. Union membership in the private sector has fallen from 24 per cent of workers in 1973 to 7 per cent in 2011, for example, although over the same period in the public sector it rose from 23 per cent to 37 per cent. This was more of a State of the Union speech masquerading as an inauguration speech, so replete was it with policy statements and digs at opponents, as opposed to the overarching worldview expected of presidents on such occasions. One suspects it will not be inscribed on any walls anytime soon.

In almost all political speeches there is some banality, of course — Obama actually said: “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course” — but close analysis of Obama’s banalities gives clues to his intentions. For this was the “You didn’t build that” speech, full of what government had achieved for the country, albeit through the repeated use of the straw man argument, as in: “No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.” The fact that nobody has ever suggested that one single person could train all America’s hundreds of thousands of maths and science teachers makes that sentence as otiose as: “Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.” Small wonder that Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has interpreted the speech as meaning that “the era of liberalism is back. His unashamedly far-left-of-centre speech certainly brings back memories of the Democratic Party in ages past.”

Jon Favreau, the 30-year-old director of Obama’s speechwriting team, has said that the president “always goes back” to a speech he gave while still a senator at a commencement address at Knox College in 2005 about “the need for collective action in a global society”, and certainly the second inaugural evinced a horror of any kind of American unilateral action in foreign policy. Leading from behind as in Libya, or not at all as over the Iranian democracy movement, must be all that can be expected from an Obama second term, as North Korean, Syrian and Iranian tyrants will soon perceive. He might say, “We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom,” because all presidents have said it ever since JFK’s inspiring inauguration address; but he doesn’t mean it and will do next to nothing about it.

“A decade of war is now ending,” said the president, only two days after Islamist terrorists seized a gas plant in Algeria and killed the first of 37 innocent hostages. Obama’s choice of former Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense implies the administration wants a clash with Israel instead of with America’s growing (since the Arab Spring) band of enemies in the Middle East. The most worrying part of the speech came when the president tried to equate the aftermath of the Second World War with that of the war against terror, stating: “We are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.” Just who are these “sworn enemies” of America and democracy that he believes — like the Germans and Japanese of 1945 — can be turned into “the surest of friends” without the intervening stage of a shattering, signed surrender? He didn’t say.

It is not as though Obama doesn’t know what is really needed for America, speaking as he did of the genuine need “to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need . . . We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of healthcare and the size of our deficit.” Yet he has no actual plans to do any of this because of the entrenched interests — especially the tax-lawyers’ and teachers’ unions — that support the Democratic Party with hundreds of millions of dollars and have successfully blocked reform for years. As for the power of the trial-lawyers in Democratic politics, expect no reform of a legal system that can allow two plaintiffs in Sacramento, California, to sue Penguin Books — full disclosure, my publishers — for the mental trauma of feeling “duped”, “betrayed” and “cheated” when Lance Armstrong admitted his autobiography wasn’t honest about his drug-taking, and demanding that a publishing house should have somehow known something that decades of professional sports drug-screeners had failed to spot.

In true New Labour style, Obama was keen to try to twist his opponents’ arguments into his strengths, in this case the fact that entitlements weaken the American can-do spirit and turn beneficiaries into clients of the state. Yet for Obama: “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.” At this point one might have expected one single example of this actually happening, but the mere expression of it was enough. Similarly, the remark “an economic recovery has begun”, was deemed sufficient to turn the anaemic US growth figures into something seemingly substantial. Growth may indeed return to the US during the second term — the swings of boom and bust were not abolished by Gordon Brown, after all — but if it happens it will owe little to him or his woeful Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. This single, throwaway reference to the economy implied that even Messrs Obama and Favreau consider it to be a very small “bucket” for them.

In the gap where arguments and examples should be, President Obama instead invoked God, mentioning Him five times, more than He was mentioned in the inaugural addresses of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Teddy Roosevelt  and George W. Bush put together. For all that “Bush 43” is supposed by liberal intellectuals to have been in thrall to the Christian Right, he  mentioned God only six times in his inaugural addresses (three times each) to Obama’s ten (five times each).

“We will respond to the threat of climate change,” promised the president, “knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations . . . The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.” Though shale gas is admittedly not a renewable source, it is a potentially vast one, capable of making America self-sufficient in energy for many decades, yet do not expect much support for it in the second term of an administration that also turned down the enormous opportunities represented by the Canadian pipeline. “We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries,” Obama nonetheless said with a completely straight face. “We must claim its promise.”

Obama’s attack on conservative Republicans — ”We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate” — was undertaken while demanding national unity behind his policies. Small wonder that Paul Ryan, who was also attacked during a previous State of the Union speech, was grinning widely throughout; the surprise is that he didn’t burst out laughing at the sheer hypocrisy of it all. “Obviously it’s not designed to bring us together,” Mitch McConnell concluded, “and certainly not designed to deal with the transcendent issue of our era, which is deficit and debt.” 

There, in a nutshell, is the trajectory of the next four years for America: a constant teetering on a fiscal cliff of its own making until the swing of the economic pendulum saves it, and the substitution of spectacle for politics by the very man who denounces it. 

The State of the Union (known to political analysts as Sotu) speech, which the president has to render Congress every year, has been given in person every year since Woodrow Wilson in 1913, and on television every year since Harry Truman in 1948, but it was not until the 1960s that it became a partisan occasion, and not until relatively recently that it has been made utterly ludicrous by the amount and length of sycophantic applauding that takes place from the party of whichever president is delivering it. President Obama’s Sotu on February 12 was interrupted by applause no fewer than 101 times, once for 36 seconds, twice for 20 seconds, and so on, with at least 20 standing ovations, at least from the Democratic side of the aisle.  By contrast the Republicans generally sat on their hands, or sent tweets from the Chamber. (Over 1.36 million tweets were sent around America commenting on Sotu and the lacklustre reply given it by Senator Marco Rubio afterwards.)

Despite being political theatre at its most schmaltzy and nauseating — ”She was 15 years old,” the president said of a girl who’d been shot. “She loved Fig Newtons [biscuits] and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends they all thought they were her best friend” — the Sotu does at least set out the administration’s agenda, albeit in a way that is very long on rhetoric and very short of specifics. When the promises Obama made — a 24 per cent hike in the minimum  wage (at a time of 8 per cent unemployment and negligible inflation), combating climate change (no one calls it global warming on the blizzard-hit East Coast any more), $50 billion in infrastructure projects, free preschool programmes for all American children, “an Aids-free generation”, federal help with mortgages, and so expensively on — are all costed, his promise that it wouldn’t add a dime to the deficit looks impossible to meet, except, as he boasted, by “raising tax rates on the wealthiest 1 per cent of Americans”. Naked class war has worked well for him, and will continue to. 

Declaring an end to the war in Afghanistan and scuttling from the country next year, condemning it to further debilitating civil war and a possible Taliban victory, somehow drew yet another standing ovation, as did his promise on Iran that “we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon”. That he is signally not doing, since he is not selling or giving Israel the 30,000lb bunker-busting Massive Ordnance Penetrator bombs necessary for the task. If only they hadn’t spent so much time on standing ovations, the legislators could have got out of the chamber in half the one hour that the Sotu speech took, and emerged blinking into the real world, where promises mean something and are properly costed.