Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Change of Tone Descends on Washington.

Watching Obama go through the ritual of his inauguration, and watching the final departure of Bush from Washington, was an emotional experience. One couldn't help but be affected by the history and the symbolism of the moment.

The sheer amount of people crammed into that space, all hoping against hope that the long nightmare might be finally over, was overwhelming.

I've slept on it now, having watched the entire thing last night on TV, and, waking this morning, it's interesting to watch how others are reacting to what Obama said.

Freedland in the Guardian thinks, as I did, that we witnessed a repudiation of Bush and everything he stood for.

Yet Obama delivered a message that was anything but conservative, offering a thorough rebuttal of his predecessor's foreign policy and signalling a break in the nearly 30-year grip the notion of limited government has exerted on US politics. Taken together, what that brief spell under the blue winter skies of Washington DC suggested was an approach that may come to characterise the Obama presidency. It is conservative in style, radical in substance.

But just listen to what he said. In one exquisite paragraph, he repudiated – and terminated – the with-us-or-against-us, force-first-not-last, macho foreign policy of the Bush era. Obama recalled the ­earlier generations who defeated ­"fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy ­alliances and enduring convictions.

They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

I am glad that Freedland appeared to hear exactly what I heard. I thought Obama was signalling as loudly as he could that the black and white, "with us or against us" approach of the last eight years was finally over. Obama even stated that the US was not entitled to do as it pleased, which was practically the entire point of George Bush's second inaugural address.

And I note that Mary Dejevsky over at the Independent heard the same thing:
What America, and the rest of the world, heard, ringing out across Washington's packed National Mall, was a call, not to arms, but to unity, to responsibility and to good old-fashioned, unglamorous, work. It was a speech consciously suffused with remembered cadences: from Abraham Lincoln, through FDR, JFK and Martin Luther King. It was also a repudiation – delicately executed, but without compromise – of a great deal that his predecessor had stood for.
From George Bush's ideological absolutism, through his easy resort to military force, through the limits he placed on scientific research, to his catastrophic response to Hurricane Katrina and unquestioning embrace of market solutions, the new President rejected them all.
Of course anyone can say these things and the real test will be what Obama does now that he has the chance to execute power, but the inauguration speech is a statement of intent, and Obama's stated intentions are the polar opposite of the ones articulated by Bush. And I felt that the entire ecstatic crowd understood that.
In 2001, the sparse crowds were sombre, deterred by the election controversy and the threat of protests. Oppressive clouds never lifted; rain lashed the parade. The Bushes almost fled the last yards to the White House. For the Obamas, the sun shone; the sky was a cloudless winter blue. Ecstatic, colourful, multi-ethnic crowds thronged the route.
His statement that, "our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint" reminded me of Clinton's wonderful line at the DNC where he stated:
People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.
For the past eight years the US has been ruled by people who have believed in the power of the US's military might, who have believed that this military might is a force which they could use at their will to impose their vision onto others.

Obama is leaning the other way, insisting that America's power lies much more in the power of it's example.

And there was no better example of the power of democracy to do good than the fact that the US's first ever black president was taking the oath of office.


Naomi Wolf in the Guardian also had a great take on what we just heard:
This speech marked a sharp line in the sand, breaking overtly with the past administration. That message was clear and intentional. It is a much more confrontational approach than ­inauguration speeches have typically been in America. I am overjoyed.

I thought Obama did three things impressively. Firstly, he sounded a note of our dire circumstances that was in line with a reality that many have been in denial about. That is technically ­brilliant, because he's inheriting a mess, and he's telling people, "We're not going to dig ourselves out of this easily." But also, "Don't blame me for it all."

The second was that he reasserted the primacy of the constitution and the rule of law. With Bush sitting behind him, that was like showtime at the OK Corral. I have written in the past that it is going to take a grassroots movement to support him in reasserting the rule of law, because there are so many vested interests that stand opposed to it. But that was a shot across the bows.

Thirdly, most amazingly, I feel that he dialled down the threat level of the US with just a few sentences. He reached out a hand to the Muslim world. For Obama to say, "I'm not going to demonise you" – that is extraordinarily stabilising.
I have never before seen an incoming president destroy the mindset of his predecessor quite so ruthlessly or so skillfully. It was a masterclass. The dagger was wielded with class, and shielded with compliments, but the message was unmistakable. The US is a country of laws, despite what Bush and Cheney might have asserted.


Steel phoenix said...

I'll forgive him for some enlarging of government if he does enough work on transparency.

Kel said...

He has certainly stated that transparency is to be a key feature of his administration. Which will be very welcome after the secrecy of the last eight years.