I watched the inauguration of President Obama on the BBC yesterday. It was a truly amazing moment, and I genuinely felt privileged to be able to watch it. I don’t think anyone can question that it was a day when history was made, and it’s always a privilege to get to watch history in the making. I also share in the profound sense of relief that an awful lot of people feel that President Bush now only has that title as an honorific. It’s also a great thing to know that, despite the enormous amounts of money the christian right are able to pour into their ongoing campaign against tolerance, decency, and compassion, the political conscience of the American people isn’t for sale. I think every American has the right to feel proud of themselves and their country today.
But it has to be said, as an outsider looking in, at times the chutzpah of America is truly breathtaking. I’m thinking particularly of the lady who seemed to be running the inauguration ceremony, and her few words at the start of things. She talked about how great it was that power was once again changing hands peacefully, when in ‘too much’ of the rest of the world it changes hands amidst violence. Well, the US would know a thing or two about that, wouldn’t they, what with their habit of using violence to unseat governments hostile to America’s interests? I’m thinking of the places where they’ve done that by means of direct invasion – Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. But I’m also thinking of other times when they’ve funded wars by other countries, or in-country revolutionaries. Take Iran, for example, where the US first put the current theocracy in power, and then funded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to try and overthrow it. Or what about Afghanistan (again), where they funded Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, before later changing their minds?
One of the most shocking examples, though, is Guatemala. In the early 1950s, the Guatemalan government had a clear democratic mandate for its policy of buying foreign-owned land, then distributing it as smallholdings to farmers who would settle the land. Keen history students will remember that this wasn’t a new idea. The US government under Thomas Jefferson had done the same thing in 1803 with the Louisiana purchase, when it bought 828,000 square miles of the Midwest from its French owners, and made it available to settlers arriving from the east. Strangely, what had been hailed as evidence of hard work and a pioneering spirit when it happened on US soil was condemned as communism of the worst kind when it was attempted in Guatemala. As a result, the CIA funded and supported a vicious coup in 1954, which initiated a rolling wave of political violence from which the country has still not fully emerged.*
I was also irked by the suggestion that the US is the most stable and peace-loving country on the planet. Well, you know what, as far as I can remember, the last time power changed hands as a result of violence in the UK was in 1688, when James II was deposed for being Catholic (amongst other things).** 1688. That’s 101 years before the first US president, George Washington, was inaugurated (on April 30th 1789). In other words, the USA has a proud history of 220 years in which power has changed hands peacefully, but the UK has a proud history of 321 years of such transfers. Even if you look at the transfer of power from prime minister to prime minister (which would seem reasonable, given that prime minister is the closest equivalent to president that the UK has), the office has changed hands peacefully ever since it was first created. Most historians date the ‘creation’ of the office to 4th April 1721, which would still give the UK a 68 year head start over the USA.
But of course, I can’t blame President Obama for any of this, and it would be extremely ungenerous to only talk about his inauguration in these terms. Part of his speech was about how political realities have shifted, and the need for a new start in foreign affairs, so there are excellent grounds to hope that we are not going to witness more of the same. But what about the speech itself? It is, I think, fair to judge the president on the basis of what he said there, and these are my initial thoughts.
The first thing that struck me was how sober and businesslike it was, compared with the tone of his speeches during the campaign, and especially when he addressed his victory rally in Chicago. Re-reading the text of the speech, there seem to be more rhetorical flourishes than came across, which leads me to assume that it was the manner of the delivery that counteracted those flourishes. That’s interesting in itself, because it seems to suggest that he was making a conscious effort to look more like a man with a job, and less like a man with a dream.
That said, it was still a very moving speech. Parts of it seemed very much to echo Martin Luther King’s style of speech-making:
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
Given that Martin Luther King is, in my book, the greatest political orator of recent times, that’s not a bad model to follow. The symbolism and significance of words of this kind being spoken by the first black president shouldn’t be overlooked either, of course. On that note, I think it would have been a nice touch if they’d held the inauguration on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (where Dr King made his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech), but I guess there may have been all kinds of reasons why that wouldn’t have been possible.
On a more practical level, the speech seemed very light on detail. This was the first time I’d ever watched a presidential inauguration all the way through (as opposed to seeing highlights on the news), so it may not be common for speeches like these to contain much concrete information. I have to say, however, that the details I’ve gleaned from the speech don’t really fill me with confidence.
First of all, there’s what he said about the credit crunch. He attributed the problems to ‘greed and irresponsibility on the part of some’. Technically, of course, if he’s talking about the US population as a whole, then he’s entirely correct. But, to my way of thinking, it wasn’t the case that a few investment bankers and hedge fund managers were greedy and irresponsible – the whole system was irresponsible, and unsustainable. The form of words the president used seemed designed to paint Wall Street in the best possible light, given the circumstances, and that worries me, because it suggests that President Obama may not be the man to carry out the root and branch reform of the financial system that is, it seems to me, needed.
I was also a little bothered by his assertion that the lack of proper oversight and regulation was a consequence of ‘our collective failure to make hard choices’. For a start, I’m not sure exactly who he was speaking on behalf of. If he was speaking on behalf of Washington politicians, then I don’t see much of a problem, but throughout most of the speech, when he used words like ‘us,’ ‘our,’ ‘we,’ it was obvious that he was speaking on behalf of the American people as a whole. If that is what he was also doing here, then what he says isn’t really on.
The lack of oversight didn’t result from a lapse of concentration on behalf of the population as a whole. It resulted from the fact that the whole political establishment, all of it – Democrat and Republican – massively indebted to the campaign contributions of big business, opted not to put in place effective regulation. It wasn’t a case so much of their failing to notice things they should have done as it was their deliberately looking the other way. Of all of the mainstream presidential hopefuls in the 2008 primaries, Barack Obama had by far the least ties to big business – a lot of his support came from individual contributions – but, even so, his willingness to gloss over the extent of the problems with financial regulation worries me.
On a different topic, the speech was filled with references to environmental issues and sustainability. During his campaign, Obama always insisted that green issues would be a major focus of his administration, and it’s reassuring to see that concern carried forward in the president’s inaugural address. But I’m concerned that here, as well, he may lack the courage or vision to make the genuinely radical changes that I think are needed. He said, quite rightly, that ‘we can no longer […] consume the world’s resources without regard to effect’, but he also emphatically set aside any consideration of the role of the market in stimulating reckless consumption of resources: ‘Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill.’
The simple fact of the matter is that prosperous countries, like the USA and the UK, are already using more than their fair share of the Earth’s resources, and are using them at a rate that is unsustainable, even if the rest of the world were to continue indefinitely in poverty. Science and technology (which the president fulsomely praised in his speech, I was glad to see) can offer a solution to some of the most pressing problems – for example, the creation of a hydrogen (as opposed to hydrocarbon) economy – but the fundamental issue of unsustainability can’t be addressed without radically reforming the way the market operates.
Essentially, the market needs to be recalibrated to drive efficiency, not waste. It’s perfectly possible to do this, and for everyone to still have the opportunity to make handsome profits, but, left to its own devices, the market won’t start to do this until raw materials are in critically short supply, triggering the sharp price rises that will stimulate efficiency, and by this point it will very possibly already be too late. The same thing could be achieved now by government intervention (by increasing taxation on the use of non-renewable resources), but it seems as though President Obama may not the man to do this, either. This is a particular shame, as his election coinciding with a Democrat majority in both the House and the Senate really does make this a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make the change, and it’s a crying shame if this opportunity is going to be squandered.
On the subject of foreign affairs and homeland security there was a lot to cheer. The new president reserved his sharpest criticism of the previous administration for their policies on the issue of human rights versus security: ‘As for our common defence, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.’ These are exactly the kind of words I would expect to hear from a president who is pledged to close down Guantanamo Bay, and to end the practice of ‘extraordinary rendition’ and US-sanctioned torture, and it was great to hear them. I was also one hundred percent in support of President Obama’s implicit assertion that, if the USA is to lead effectively at all, it has to lead by example.
I realise that an assumption of leadership is a standard part of the way America views itself, and I probably shouldn’t read too much into it, but the extent to which the new president still believes it’s America’s unassailable right to lead worries me. I particularly noticed when he said that America should ‘demand even greater effort – even greater cooperation and understanding between nations.’ Well, but that’s the trouble, you can’t ‘demand’ those things. If you try and demand understanding and cooperation, you’ll be met by their opposites. For cooperation to evolve, there needs to be a sense of equal partners working together, not one country assuming they have an automatic, god-given right to dictate what shall occur. (To be fair to President Obama, there are other occasions in the speech where he spoke of ‘working with’ other peoples and governments, so the line about demanding cooperation may just have been an unfortunate turn of phrase.)
I was also concerned by the sense of messianic zeal that seemed to lie behind some of the new president’s words. It was most apparent when he said things like ‘This is the source of our confidence – the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.’ Politicians who believe that they have a special mission to do ‘god’s work’ are always worrying. President Bush believed in this idea to some extent (or at least said that he did), but the person in recent times who has been most guilty of it is Tony Blair. It lead to a few good things, but it also lead directly to his willingness to try and remake the world by various military adventures, and, for the most part, they really haven’t ended well.
A couple of months ago, I got into a bit of a row by possibly overplaying the parallels between Barack Obama and Tony Blair, and I want to try and avoid making that same mistake here. That said, it does strike me that there was one last way in which some of what President Obama said seemed to me to echo Tony Blair. I’m thinking of the way he spoke about the need to redistribute wealth (not that he would have dreamt of putting it in anything like so socialist a way):
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.
The slogan of ‘opportunity not for the few, but for the many’ was one of the defining mantras of New Labour. It signalled the party’s shift away from old-fashioned democratic socialism (which saw the function of the state as correcting the injustice and unfairness of the unrestricted market), towards the idea that the function of government was to leave the market unrestricted, but to ensure that the benefits and opportunities produced by it were distributed evenly throughout society. In the early years, especially, the idea gave Tony Blair a lot of political ‘traction’. It sounded socialist enough to appeal to Old Labour voters, but also Thatcherite enough to allay the fears of former Conservatives. Unfortunately, experience has shown us that, in Tony Blair’s mouth, words like these were at worst empty rhetoric, and at best aspirations that he was unable to fulfil. Everybody knows that, far from ensuring equality of opportunity, Tony Blair presided over a significant widening of the gap between rich and poor, and also a significant reduction in social mobility. Comparatively speaking, in 2007 the poor were poorer, and had less chance of getting rich, than they did in 1997.
Now, of course, Barack Obama is not Tony Blair. Just because Blair was guilty of spouting empty rhetoric, or making promises he couldn’t keep, that doesn’t mean that President Obama will turn out to be guilty of the same. I have no reason to doubt his sincerity – he seems remarkably genuine for a politician in high office – and I sincerely hope, for the good of the American people, that he is able to deliver, and in good time, too.
But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that my optimism and hope is combined with a fear that he will fall short, and that, instead of radical, epoch-defining change, he will achieve only limited, incremental improvements. And I would also be lying if I didn’t own up to a worry – arising from the way he has been written and spoken about as the one great hope of an entire generation – that if he does fall short, there will be an overwhelming, and hugely damaging, tide of cynicism, similar to the one that we’re currently experiencing in the UK. Can you remember the last time you heard anyone say something positive about any contemporary UK politician?
* – yes, I know the UK has done the same, and worse, over the course of our history, and I’d understand entirely if any Americans reading this felt inclined to dismiss everything I’ve said so far as sanctimonious hypocrisy.
** – I realise that there have been several attempts to violently overthrow power in the UK since 1688, just as the Confederates tried to do in the US during the American civil war. But if the USA is allowed to ignore the violent context of Gettysburg and all the rest, then I reckon I’m allowed to ignore the violent context of Culloden and all the rest, don’t you?