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The Permanent Campaign

3:17 PM, Jan 21, 2009 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Without making value judgments one way or another, one is struck by how backward-looking and partisan President Obama's inaugural speech was. All inaugurals are principally forward-looking (you can peruse the entire oeuvre here) and Obama's was no exception. But what was exceptional was that nearly every forward-looking optic in Obama's speech was framed with an implicit criticism of the recent past.

Looking at other recent party-transition inaugurals (Reagan 1981, Clinton 1993, and George W. Bush 2001) makes clear how different Obama's was. Inaugurals follow a certain form: Reagan, Clinton, and Bush all used the words "renew" or "renewal" in their speeches; all three spoke about challenges facing the country and all three looked to the bright future which their administrations hoped to bring about. But they were also all careful not to speak ill of the administration which preceded them.

President Reagan's first inaugural began darkly, warning that the United States was "confronted with an economic affliction of great proportions." But Reagan didn't place any specific blame for this affliction, saying that "The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades." The only time he came close to swiping at his predecessor was saying that "We are not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline."

For his part, President Clinton warned that the economy was "weakened by business failures, stagnant wages, increasing inequality, and deep divisions among our people." He spoke elliptically about the failures which had led to this, but couched it the first-person plural: "We know we have to face hard truths and take strong steps. But we have not done so. Instead, we have drifted, and that drifting has eroded our resources, fractured our economy, and shaken our confidence." The closest Clinton came to bashing the Reagan/Bush years was saying that "we pledge an end to the era of deadlock and drift."

President Bush had not a single bad thing to say about the Clinton years in his first inaugural. The gloomiest note he sounded was that "While many of our citizens prosper, others doubt the promise, even the justice, of our own country. The ambitions of some Americans are limited by failing schools and hidden prejudice and the circumstances of their birth. And sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent, but not a country." Bush proposed all sorts of forward-looking precepts for the way his administration would engage the world, but he never looked backwards for blame.

President Obama, on the other hand, rarely looked forward except in the context of looking back: "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age." Looking to explain the economic crisis, Obama said that "our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions-that time has surely passed."

Obama used a familiar construct from his campaign speeches (talking about his politics of "hope" versus the Bush/Rove "politics of fear"), saying, "On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord."

Obama then seemed to attack conservatism itself, saying, "On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics." (It seems reasonable to assume that the "dogmas" Obama refers to were conservative dogmas, since he frequently accused conservatives of adhering to "worn" "dogmas" over the course of the campaign. During the debate on the economy, for instance, Obama said of McCain's recovery plan: "It's little more than the worn dogma that says we should give more to those at the top and hope their good fortune trickles down to the many who are hard-working.")

Three moments seemed to be pure critiques of Bush policies. First, Obama promised that "We will restore science to its rightful place . . ." Later he said that "[W]e reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." And finally, he said that "Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please."

Whatever its other merits, President Obama's speech was more partisan than recent inaugurals, more interested in locating blame for current problems and drawing sharp distinctions between his ambitions and the works of his predecessors. In many ways, it resembled a campaign speech.