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Evans

Obama's Clean Break?

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Jan 20, 2009

In an inauguration replete with symbolism, Barack Obama made a clean break with the past as he became the 44th President of the United States. However as he moves forward, his actions will speak louder than his words and will prove whether he is worthy of the greatness he assigns himself as an heir of Lincoln.

In a somber and serious inaugural address, Obama laid out the problems and tried to clearly make a break with the past to restore confidence to the American people and to restore world confidence in American leadership. In laying out the cause of our failure to address our problems, he blamed the partisan system of Washington politics ("we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas). However, Obama primarily blames Bush and the Republicans, though he did not directly name them.

Throughout the speech, he repeated the liberal truisms that Bush and the conservatives are to blame. Whether it was "we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord," "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," "that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more," "not just with missiles and tanks . . . They understood that our power alone cannot protect us,  nor does it entitle us to do as we please, " etc., the criticism of the Bush Administration was implicit.

And the key to getting back on the road according to Obama? A return to our founding princples. This is a familiar theme in inaugural addresses as presidents claim a return to these principles will restore our nation. The implicit criticism is that the opposing party abandoned these principles. Obama was clear in this toward the end of his speech when 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 — honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.

Obama then made a call for Americans to take responsibility for their actions as they tackle health care, energy independence, global warming, and improving the economy. With this break, Obama figuratively begins anew with new policies and a new spirit (or at least tries to begin anew).

Moreover, Obama continued his post-partisan message with a call for pragmatism. He discussed the different things that the market, government, and individuals can and should do and said that what matters is what works. This is also seen in his line "We will restore science to its rightful place" which repeats the liberal mantra that Bush favored ideology over science.

However, the major test that Obama faces is whether his actions will match words and this is actually a clean break from the past -- and this is where he fails. As in many of his speeches, he is big on ideas and minimal on substance. He forgets that there is large ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans and bridging that will be difficult.

Just as important, it is hard to be post-partisan when you challenge and question the motivations of your opponents. When someone complains about petty partisan bickering and choosing conflict over discord, it is inappropriate to engage in that behavior which you condemn. But that is exactly what he did. In promising to choose "hope over fear," "But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions," "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," "power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please," "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," and "no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders," he claims Republicans are fear-mongerers, elitists unconcerned about the masses, unamerican, arrogant, and indifferent and unconcerned about others around the world.

And after that, Obama says help me! I imagine it will be hard for many Republicans to work with someone who thinks so lowly of them. That is not post-partisan. That is the same old, same old. Here is a way to promote post-partisanship. Avoid straw men arguments and respect those whose positions differ from yours. Obama clearly fails his own post-partisan test.

Obama also ignores history. The financial system is in crisis and the national and world economy is struggling. But this is not the worst economy and greatest crisis that we have ever faced. Nor does it have great similarities with the Great Depression. Our employment is still historically low (not 25% of Great Depression) and banks are struggling but the government is actively working to protect them so few have failed. This does not even compare to the stagflation of the 70s with high unemployment, inflation, and interest rates, long lines to get gas, etc. Don't be mistaken. The US needs to address energy independence, the financial solvency of banks, health care, entitlement reform, etc. However, we cannot accurately address the problems unless we are open about the causes of the problems and what must be done to solve them. Crisis helps promote leadership but manufacturing crisis can backfire.

Moreover, Obama also needs to be careful about the message his inauguration sends. Today was historical in many ways. Seeing a black man take the oath indicates that Dr. King's dream of 45 years ago was fulfilled. And hopefully, the image of an intact, happy black family will serve as a new role model for the black community as it confronts many of its problems. And having Aretha Franklin, banned from singing in some places in the 60s because she was black, sing "My Couyntry Tis of Thee" and the Rev. Lowery, who marched with Dr. King, deliver the benediction was appropriate and moving.

However, the one blight on the ceremony was the ending of Lowery's benediction when he said, "we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in the back . . and when white will embrace what is right." I have tremendous respect for Rev. Lowery and what he has done but that last comment was inappropriate. The fact that white Americans voted in large numbers to make Obama president disproves his point that whites are racist and needs to "embrace what is right."  Futhermore, it shows that he has not adapted to the new times that Obama represents.

Attacking your opponents motivations, building straw men to make your case, and ignoring history is not Lincolnesque. Obama should reflect,as Lincoln would advise, on our "better angels" and begin anew if he wants to create a truly postpartisan world.

One final comment: a note on the Bushes. Even though he has been attacked mercilessly by his opponents and many Democrats, he showed grace during the entire transition and inauguration. He spoke movingly of Obama's election and showed him every grace prior to the election. Even when he left the Capitol, the embrace for Obama seemed genuine while most of these departures exhibit much more tension. Bush, despite all of his flaws, constantly showed grace and kindness to his enemies and he should be commended for that.