Obama's Promise of Change Comes Wrapped in Red, White and Blue

Election '08

Like any important speech, Barack Obama's inaugural address was actually several speeches rolled into one. Each string of rhetoric the new president wove on this historic occasion holds different meaning for American progressives, a weary group following eight disastrous years of conservative war and plunder and hungry for a brand of change that goes far beyond a slogan. Ultimately, it was a mixed bag -- hopeful signs, but of a distinctly conventional sort of change. A dramatic move from the far reaches of the right, but with threads that conservatives might have found attractive.

Let's start with the inaugural address as a message to the nation's governing elite. The Beltway pundits saw it as "a stark repudiation of the era of George W. Bush," in the words of New York Times columnist David Sanger. When Obama said, "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some"; when he observed that, "Without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. … A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous"; when he promised to "restore science to its rightful place" and warned that the "ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet" ; when he promised to "harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories" -- these were all subtle digs at Bush-era policies and signs that the new administration would turn in directions that progressives could applaud.

On foreign policy, too, there were a few shots at Bush's era -- some promise of a more-progressive approach: "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," he said. "Power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. … Our power grows through its prudent use." He promised "to work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat and roll back the specter of a warming planet."

There were other lines that might gladden progressive hearts. He said there was a role of government in creating "jobs at a decent wage" with "health care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified." He was inclusive, reminding the country that "our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers" (that last word a daring one in a nation that will elect a president of any color, but not an atheist).

But that was about it. Enough to strike D.C. insiders as a sharp break with the Bush administration -- surely good reason to celebrate after eight long years in the darkness. But not enough, perhaps, to impress those who want the heralded "change" to bring a deep and far-reaching transformation of our government's key institutions and power structures.

Of course, most of us progressives who put in long hours working for the Obama campaign had no such illusions. We knew from that start that our candidate was never really a progressive by our standards. Whatever his deepest inclinations might be, he is, above all, a pragmatic politician who aims to win. He picks his battles carefully, never takes on a fight unless he thinks he'll be victorious, piles up political capital by helping others with their own winnable battles, and calls in those chips to score victories on issues he really cares about. As a cautious politician, it's up to us to keep up the pressure, creating the political winds that might push him to the left.

The administration Obama put together shows his approach. He will let the foreign policy and Wall Street establishments keep charge of their bailiwicks. He'll fight no major contests on those fronts. Then when the crunch comes on the domestic issues that matter most to him -- health care, energy and the environment, help for the unemployed -- those elites will back him, or at least stand aside, making it far harder for the conservative movement to defeat him.

But even on these favored issues, his positions will never move too far leftward; he won't ask for more than the political traffic can bear. The careful wording of the inaugural address -- though it sounded to insiders like "a break from decades of Washington leadership" -- suggests that the break will be slow, gradual and cautious at best.

The overarching theme of the speech was simple: In a time of crisis, the only way to move toward a better future is to step back into a perfect American past, to live again by the high ideals that once made our nation great, ideals that "still light the world."

Of course, that City on the Hill is mostly an illusion. If you don't believe in an idealized version of the nation's past, key portions of the speech made significantly less sense.

Many of the ideals the president praised could be comfortably embraced by conservatives. In his opening sentence, he recalled "the sacrifices borne by our ancestors." The sentence highlighted by his aides in the advance publicity said bluntly: "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties." What kind of duties? Obama invoked "the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job" -- as if a worker should have to choose between one and the other.

On the foreign front, he sounded as tough as George W. Bush at times. He invoked all-powerful terrorist networks, promising: "You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you." And he praised "the risk-takers, the doers … who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom. … For us, they fought and died, in places like … Khe Sanh" -- as if the Vietnam War had been some noble crusade for a freedom.

This language wasn't directed at the pundits, or the "centrist" elites. It's directed to a much larger audience: the many millions of average Americans who sense that we're in a deep crisis but are afraid of genuine change.

It's not that they are afraid of progressive policies. Polls suggest that most Americans will approve a host of progressive policy changes, if each new policy is explained to them separately, one by one, out of any political context.

But once progressive policies are bundled together into a single platform, most Americans stop focusing on the individual policies and begin to see an image of radical change that they fear would tear apart the remaining shreds of cultural stability, leaving American society with no foundation at all.

Obama understands this perfectly well. He has talked sympathetically about the voters' longing for "a sense of continuity and stability that is unavailable in [their] economic life. … Because Democrats haven't met them halfway on cultural issues, we've not been able to communicate to them effectively an economic agenda that would help broaden our coalition." He knows that some cope with change by clinging to God, guns, etc. But those folks, and many more who are not so socially conservative, all seek continuity and stability by believing in a tightly knit package of enduring American values that they can count on to hold society together no matter what.

The Republicans would love to tar Obama as a threat to whatever is left of the unraveling social fabric. That's probably the only way they can hope to defeat him on the economic issues central to his agenda. He doesn't plan to let that happen, especially when it is so easy to avoid defeat by mobilizing the language of traditional values -- "hard work and honesty … loyalty and patriotism," and conquering every enemy -- which is music to so many American ears.

It may not be music to genuinely progressive ears. But let's not judge a president by the color of his rhetoric. Let's not assume that he's taking his stand on any firm ideological ground or telling us what he really and truly believes. Regardless of what the new president believes, it's up to us to push him to the left. But will we have any chance of success?

The best reason for thinking so comes from yet another crucial audience Obama was addressing: the mass media journalists, who speak not to the insider elite but to their idea of the average American. What did these journalists hear in the inaugural address? Judging from the headlines in news sources of national scope, they definitely heard the widely heralded "new era of responsibility," the call to "make hard choices" and "shared sacrifices." The media headlines set these words in the larger context, not of conservative values like duty and patriotism, but of the progressive values of large-scale transformation.

According to a scan of the latest news, Obama calls us to "begin again remaking America." We will "pick ourselves up," the headlines trumpeted, and find "a new way forward." No obstacle can stop us: "The challenges we face are real," but "they will be met," because "We have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord."

The media created this plot line in part because it's dramatic and exciting: Will Americans rise to the challenge? Will they get the job done? It makes us want to tune in again next time, just to see what happens. The hero of the media story is not America the World Power, but America the People -- all of us -- the "men and women obscure in their labor," as Obama put it. The media sense that the people don't really want to go backward; they want to create something new. That all sounds like progressive, even radical, talk to me. If that's what the people want, why not give it to them?

Yet Obama and his speechwriters are more subtle than the headline writers. They know that the vast majority of Americans want both transformation and reassuring stability, that reassuring words are crucial to smoothing the political path of transformation.

Perhaps we can learn from Obama's approach -- learn that there is no reason to let other political forces monopolize the powerful language of traditional American values. Obama's idealized America is not the only one. We can follow his example, promoting progressive policies by clothing them in the language of traditional values, while making both the policies and the values far more progressive.

Obama's inaugural address only hinted at this possibility. It's up to us to take the hint and make real change. It will be a "long, rugged path," as he said, not "the path for the fainthearted."

"But our time of standing pat … has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America."

Now begins the process of taking the new president at his word and pushing him to do the same.

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