The Audacity of Fluff: A Critical Reading of Obama's Inaugural Address

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The president's words elided inconvenient realities and too often lacked rigor.

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Reuters

President Obama's Second Inaugural Address is unlikely to be much remembered by future generations. Its authors have a talent for "rhetorical craftsmanship," as James Fallows astutely noted. But to what end?

Were hard truths expressed? Were complicated concepts rendered in clarifying language? Were the disagreements that divide us insightfully characterized? Was an argument advanced? No, the craftsmanship was marshaled in place of substance rather than in support of it. The president expertly associated himself with certain ideas and evoked certain impressions.

He burnished his brand rather than acting like a leader. 

I don't mean to suggest a total dearth of ideas.

The speech's theme: As Americans, we're in this together. That's a fine theme. Like the vast majority of Americans, I favor a social safety net to care for those who can't care for themselves; I grant the wisdom of funding infrastructure projects through federal and state governments; I agree that "our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very
well and a growing many barely make it"; and I think the present generation has some obligations to posterity.    
    
Of course, sharing those concerns needn't mean accepting that any one related policy proposal would be effective or desirable. I often disagree with Obama's proposed remedies. I am hardly alone. What did the second inaugural offer an American like me? Neither a serious, reasoned attempt to persuade me of his vision nor an acknowledgement that it is deeply contested.

As he often does, Obama proceeded as if leadership is an exercise in eliding disagreements; as if defeating a straw man in argument is persuasive; and sometimes even as if pretty lies are preferable to the truth. Certain passages met a basic threshold of substance. But they were surrounded by fluff: rhetoric so light, soft, and fuzzy it ought to be beneath a historical occasion. We now expect no better of our pols. So they meet our expectations.

What follows are passages I found particularly objectionable (for a variety of reasons). 


Said Obama:
Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society's ills can be cured through government alone.
Oh really?

Obama favors greater central authority in health care, energy, education, gun regulation, and occupational safety. His underlings have actively undermined state efforts to decentralize marijuana policy. And on national-security matters, he has worked to centralize authority in the executive branch. In what way has Obama's supposed skepticism of central authority manifested itself in the last four years? I can think of no significant step he has taken to check it. This is phrased as a nod to ideological opponents, but the concession has no substance behind it.

Said Obama:
Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. 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.
That apples-and-oranges comparison at the beginning reads like a passage from a Tom Friedman column. It's trivially true that no single person can train all the math teachers we need, or build all the research labs. But it hardly follows that we need to do all those things together, "as one nation, and one people." Some of the math teachers can be trained by Jesuit institutions that secular Americans are uninclined to support. Some of the research labs can be built with private money to conduct research that many wouldn't care to fund, whether due to moral objections or because they don't appreciate its value. A great strength of America is the fact that we don't have to do everything collectively, "as one nation, and one people." Individuals and diverse groups work alone or in private collaboration to pursue their own notions of the good, and everyone benefits from their greatest achievements. If we're smart, we also benefit from the science teachers and research laboratories of other peoples and nations. In a pluralistic nation, actually doing anything as one is either a vapid illusion or creeping fascism. Progressives feel that way when they're told opposing a particular war is un-American. 

Said Obama:
America's possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it -- so long as we seize it together.
Our world is not without boundaries. And America's capacity for risk is not "endless," thank goodness.

Said Obama:
We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.
In America, it has never been true that a little girl born into the bleakest poverty "knows" she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she has never and does not currently have the same chance. Equality of opportunity is something to which America ought to keep aspiring. So I suppose I agree with what I take to be his point. What I don't understand is why Obama would phrase things as if, when we've been true to ourselves, the destitute poor enjoyed that equality. They never have (though some of them have managed to "make it" anyway). 

Said Obama:
We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher.
This elides the reason for our woes. The tax code is flawed because it accommodates special interests as often as the general interest, among other reasons, not because it's waiting for "new ideas" or "technology" to fix it. It isn't "ideas" or "technology" that are going to fix our government or our schools either. Pretending as much is a frivolous evasion that serves no one.

Obama:
We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.
Are today's retirees "the" generation that built this country? No. Is there anyone arguing that America must choose between the binary options caring for the elderly and investing in the children?

No.

There are people suggesting that the relative amounts flowing to those groups must be re-calibrated. Obama's words create a straw man that is marshaled to elide the fact that society must decide how much the state spends on young and on old, and that the two decisions impact one another.

Said Obama:
We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.
It isn't actually clear that the United States will respond to the threat of climate change, partly because most Americans can still mostly escape the impact of wildfires, droughts, and more powerful storms. The politics are difficult precisely because the costs are borne by other people.

Said Obama:
The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries -- we must claim its promise.
Actually, if Japan or Germany or Brazil invented an awesome new technology that made clean energy cheaply, without any American leadership, we'd still benefit from it, and there would be no danger of us "ceding" it, whatever that means. We'd adopt the technology, obviously. Again, Obama is trying to elide something: in this case, that "clean energy" is presently inferior, at least when you can ignore its externalities, and that the transition is being resisted for that reason. What purpose does it serve to frame controversies in a way that elides their core?

Said Obama:
We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war. Our brave men and women in uniform, tempered by the flames of battle, are unmatched in skill and courage.
Actually, America is presently engaged in a War on Terrorism, and no one, the president included, thinks it is going to end in the foreseeable future. Nor has he put forth any strategy or analytic framework under which it would end, or defined what a victory would mean. Also, there is no evidence for the belief that American soldiers are unmatched in their courage. There are almost certainly people of other nationalities as brave. Why pretend otherwise?

Said Obama, "We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law." But the last two presidents have repeatedly broken domestic and international law in the course of fighting the War on Terrorism. He continued, "No one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation." Actually, weaker nations have a greater stake in a peaceful world, because they're unable to prevent violent aggressors from invading and killing their people.

"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," Obama said, though neither our interests nor our conscience will cause him to support democracy in Saudi Arabia or Qatar.

Said Obama:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths -- that all of us are created equal -- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot
walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
But in his actions, he makes abundantly clear his belief that people in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, to name three countries where he approves drone strikes, are not to be treated as if their lives are equally valuable as American lives, or as if they enjoy the very same rights and liberties. If our freedom is "inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth," when does the invasion of North Korea begin? Or are we actually quite free despite their living in tyranny? If Obama is being guided by the stars of Selma and Stonewall he's an awful navigator.

So many passages in Obama's second inaugural betrayed a predictable yet disappointing lack of rigor and forthrightness. But other than all the quoted passages above, the speech was okay. I'm sure Obama's defenders will point out that many of the shortcomings I've detailed are no worse than what is found in most every politician's speech. I concede the point, but encourage everyone to stop treating that as a good reason to withhold criticism.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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