Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Speech: Second Look

I suspect that as people look at the speech more closely and see video of Obama delivering it again, it will grow in estimation. There are no big and surprising rhetorical flourishes, and I remain nearly solo in my conviction that JFK's speech was revolutionary in ways this was not (and in his call for global arms control and cooperation, JFK's is even more revolutionary now than it was then), but Obama himself is a revolution. What he stands for in his speech is a kind of restoration and reapplication of values, as he said:

" 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."

Indeed, the pairings in this list are pretty mundane, almost cliches: hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, loyalty and patriotism--except for one: tolerance and curosity. That's an intriguing pairing, and it's very telling that "curosity" is in there at all. Obama spoke elsewhere in the speech about returning science to its rightful place, and he mentioned imagination in this key passage:

"Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have 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."

(Had I been asked, I think I would have argued that the final phrase should be:
"when imagination is joined to common purpose, and courage to necessity." If I'm getting the meaning, those are the parallel constructions, and the rhythm is as least as good.)

Responsibility is the watchword of the speech as a whole, and is used in many ways. The speech celebrates the "you'd do the same for me" responsibility of individuals, and calls for responsibility in government and business, and especially politics (where it's time to put away childish things.)

There are some echoes of JFK in foreign policy sections (assertions of power and right, but also humility, diplomacy and partnerships) and there's a specific echo of JFK's language as well as ideas in this key passage (the echo is "light the world"):

"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake."

Obama does mention two key issues outside the usual international relations that absorb us in weary repetition of avoiding the worst and getting nowhere, again with a JFK friends/foes echo "With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet." JFK talked a lot about the nuclear threat, but the Climate Crisis was not yet on the radar. "Roll back the specter" is nice rhythmic language, though it otherwise doesn't bear close examination.

The economic section does resemble FDR's approach: he's reassuring about the fundamental capacity of the country, he outlines the basic problems plainly, and though Obama doesn't even try to match "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," he says basically that.

FDR named the villains:" the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men." Obama: "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age." And later:

"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 our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good."

This is an eloquent formulation of what Obama has made clear elsewhere is his fundamental approach to both economics and social justice: to how America works. The line I emphasized is also his way of saying what JFK said a bit more eloquently ( "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.") but Obama says it in a better context, and as part of a convincing argument involving opportunity, rather than social conscience alone . That may be the hidden virtue of this speech: it isn't a collection of lines and assertions, but a set of arguments. Who knows, on further examination, it may turn out to be a single if complex argument.

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