Posted: April 6, 2009
t a ceremony whose official theme was a new birth of freedom, President Barack Obama wisely chose not to emphasize the similarities between himself and the 16th president. Oh, he used Lincoln's Bible to swear the bungled oath of office, and rode into town along the railroad route the Great Emancipator had taken. But he did not press the point, allowing the majestic facts to speak for themselves: the country's first African-American president, being inaugurated on the west front of the Capitol, overlooking the mall that sweeps past the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial.
He had not been so restrained in his victory speech on November 4. Then, he quoted Lincoln's First Inaugural and, rather egregiously, the Gettysburg Address, assuring his ecstatic supporters that their efforts on his behalf "proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people has not perished from this earth." Implying what, exactly—that if John McCain had won, slavery and secession would have triumphed?
He struck a more graceful note, indeed many graceful notes, in his Inaugural Address. As an orator, Obama is inspirational rather than persuasive—his speeches contain few arguments—and his post-partisan message fits the moment. The key to his post-partisan appeal is the magic word "new." Obama sprinkled it liberally over his speech, in keeping with his campaign promise to inaugurate "a new politics for a new time." He dismissed the old politics as cynical and full of "recriminations and worn out dogmas." Yet what dogma is more worn out than the empty call for a new politics? And what will generate more cynicism than raising public expectations of government's efficacy far beyond what it can reasonably deliver?
In his First Inaugural, Lincoln promised not a new politics but government according to constitutional limits. The key word in his Address was not an adjective but a noun, not "new" but "Constitution," a term occurring in virtually every paragraph.
President Obama didn't mention the Constitution, at least explicitly. He did refer to the Founding Fathers who, he explained, "drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations." But the context was foreign affairs, not domestic. He evoked the Constitution as the emblem of his post-Guantanamo foreign policy in which "our safety and our ideals" would be easily reconciled. Though pledging that the U.S. would defeat its enemies (a shadowy "network of violence and hatred"), he looked forward to "a new era of peace" based on diplomacy, aid for poor nations, and global environmentalism. "For the world has changed," he noted, "and we must change with it." Countries and terrorists who think otherwise "are on the wrong side of history."
It will take hard work to remake America, he admonished. Yet to a surprising extent, history does the heavy lifting for Obama. He dismissed as "false" the choice between our safety and our ideals (as he defines them), between small and big government, between national sovereignty and international authority. We can have it all, it seems, because we're at a moment—that famous "moment" he brags about—when history has reconciled these competing notions for us. Change has already come.
The most striking aspect of the speech was its repeated invocations of the American Founders and the virtues of the American character. These sentiments lent dignity to the Address and pleased conservatives who didn't grasp Obama's ulterior motive: to recapture patriotism for the Left and restore the Democrats as a (actually, the) patriotic party. This is not your Founding Fathers' patriotism but (inevitably) a "new spirit of patriotism," meaning that we have to "pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other." (That's from his election night speech.) The old patriotism, he implied, while perhaps good in its day, was insufficiently redistributionist, forward-looking, and cosmopolitan for today's needs. The old virtues and values like honesty, courage, and patriotism are "true," then, not in themselves so much but for pragmatic reasons: they are indispensable to the vital and continuing work of remaking America and, indeed, the world. Our deepest loyalty should be to this future and therefore more perfect Union, not to America as it is or ever was.
The "true genius of America," President Obama likes to say, is "that America can change." Lincoln would have asked, for better or worse? We shall see.