President Obama’s Challenge
By Rob Schwarzwalder
January 20, 2009
President Obama’s long-awaited inaugural address now rests with its rhetorical sisters, its phrases to be lifted and repackaged by future speechwriters and its text to be studied by political scientists looking for clues concerning what will be.
The speech had moments of poetry made eloquent not only by the images evoked or words chosen but because they stirred the national memory in reminding us of a noble past. Straightforward and direct in its beginning, it moved to challenge (bordering lecturesomeness) and then lyricism and closed with references to Washington and virtue and God’s purpose.
Obama echoed Lincoln’s First Inaugural in calling on us to “choose our better history,” even as the 16th President urged us to be “touched by the better angels of our nature.” And Lincoln, for whom the assertion of the Declaration that “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” was the sacrosanct foundation of American life, would have been pleased to hear the new President herald “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”
It contained some tinny moments, such has the assertion that our forebears worked “till (sic) their hands were raw.” Well, some of them did, sometimes.
Yet occasional triteness does not detract from Obama’s moving affirmation that
Our journey has never been one of shortcuts 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.
How this ultimately will work out in practice, whether the bulk of our fellow citizens who eschew hard choices and resent those who compel them to face things they would rather ignore (such as the entitlement reform and line-item efficiencies Obama is urging) is open to question. But sometimes, as with Churchill, by enabling people to believe something of themselves that might or might not be a given, those so enabled actually do rise up and justify their political billing.
Was Obama correct that those who “question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans” are victims of “short memories”? Have they, indeed, “forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage”?
Maybe not. The last time multiple aims were achieved in close sequence was the 1960s, whose fiscal and programmatic excesses inaugurated the very era of limited government Obama decried. More recently, it has become clear that whether with welfare or health care (Bill Clinton), Social Security or immigration (George W. Bush), people adjust to proposals for massive change only slowly and that such adjustment sometimes never really happens.
Moreover, we don’t have a common purpose, right now, on the things he has discussed at such length: “Going green” sounds great until its costs become too pinching. Courage animated by necessity implies that there is a common recognition of an immediate threat. No such awareness exists today respecting fiscal or military or other choices before us. It is hard to generate grand enthusiasm against an amorphous enemy – remember Gerald Ford’s “WIN” (Whip Inflation Now) plan?
The American people are ready for a new start, surely, or at least for a psychic break from the recent past. But once the specifics are announced, Obama will have to paint a compelling picture of what can be to mobilize a people wary of grand ventures and their grand costs.
For conservatives, perhaps the two most philosophically problematic sections of the new President’s address were those dealing with the role of government and the nature of American public life. First, what did President Obama claim about the role of Uncle Sam? Here’s how he put it:
… 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.
Well, no: My persistently conservative brethren and I DO ask whether our government is too big and answer an unapologetic, “Yes!” We believe that the limitations inherent in our Constitution on the roles and duties of government are, without being amended, fixed and wholly prudent. We believe that well-paying jobs are best obtained in the open market without untoward government intervention (I rather dislike having a nanny). That health care is most affordable and accessible when it is market-driven. And that personal retirement accounts are the best resolution to the crisis in Social Security funding. Among other things.
As to “whether it (government) works,” it does, splendidly, when it follows constitutional mandates (e.g., the Departments of Defense, Justice, State and Treasury). But massive federal spending inevitably contains massive quantities of waste, fraud and abuse, not to mention costly and inefficient regulations.
When a man of 400 pounds loses 25 pounds, that’s a modest benefit, but he remains obese. Shaving a little excess off of Jabba the State is a good thing, but it’s not nearly what’s needed. Big government simply doesn’t work as well as the discipline, inventiveness, financially incentivized and appropriately regulated private sector.
Calling this perspective “stale” is an at-best modest insult. It’s been called much worse (read any liberal blogger). Conservatives will be glad to freshen this argument, and we plan to do so often in the next four years.
Then followed the President’s assertion that we have a “patchwork heritage”:
We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
This conflates past and present incorrectly. Our heritage is not patchwork: It is Judeo-Christian in theological rootedness and grounded in the biblical and classical notions of natural law and natural right, of what the Apostle Paul called “the law written on the heart” (Romans 2:14-15). This is the coherent foundation of our national life.
We are now a nation where there is a growing Islamic presence, where the Hindu community is vibrant and growing and where agnosticism is becoming more prevalent. But such diversity is a recent phenomenon; it is not our heritage. We welcome everyone who will share in the common burdens and responsibilities of citizenship, but we cannot understand the meaning of America without understanding its bases in the beliefs of our Founders and their expression in the Declaration, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. And those beliefs flowed from a Judeo-Christian worldview.
The President would be wise to consider that without a common foundation of belief about these matters, the “disuniting of America” foreseen by people as diverse as Robert Bork and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. will continue. We love football, all want to get along and be nice, have safe streets and care for our kids. But such commonalities are merely human – they are not uniquely American. The day of “tribe” will never pass unless the rest of the world recognizes that freedom and justice and opportunity come from the hand of God, not the largesse of the state or the consensual agreement of the 50 percent-plus-one. Until they become more American, in other words.
The President deserves great credit for two particularly striking comments:
We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.
GOOD for him. If carried to its logical conclusion, this means we will continue fighting our global war against terrorists. I trust the new President means what he said. The continuance of Robert Gates at the Pentagon is an outstanding symbol of his apparent resolution.
And also, this:
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. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
Bravo, again. If he means it – that we need a new era of responsibility – then that will mean more virtuous personal choices (and he actually called us to virtue in his peroration: yee-ha!) and less reliance on government by a nation a Canadian friend of mine described as becoming less “the land of the free” than “the land of the freeloaders.”
The President made an intriguing theological truth-claim, that “God calls on us to shape an uncertain future.” This recalls President Kennedy’s challenge that “on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”
Without wishing to engage in an Arminian-Calvinist debate, people of serious Jewish and Christian faith must affirm that God is utterly sovereign in time and eternity and that, consequently, nothing is uncertain about a future of which He is in complete control.
At the same time, we must also affirm that God calls every person to ethical conduct and prudent decisions – to moral responsibility. In the words of George Washington’s first Thanksgiving Proclamation, “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favors.”
In this spirit, all Americans can accept the new President’s challenge wholeheartedly.
Rob Schwarzwalder has been chief-of-staff to two Members of Congress and was senior speechwriter to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson during the first two years of the George W. Bush Administration. He lives with his family in Alexandria, Va.