Business Times - 23 Jan 2009
The audacity of pragmatism
Obama's inaugural address lacked flourish but revealed an important part of his nature
SEVERAL veteran Washington hands who had been around when John F Kennedy delivered his inaugural address in 1961 ('Let the word go forth . . . that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans') and who have studied other famous addresses - Abraham Lincoln ('With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds . . .'), Franklin Delano Roosevelt ('So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself . . .') and Ronald Reagan ('Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.') - have been complaining of a certain let down after watching Barack Obama give his address.
'It was a downer,' e-mailed a journalist friend who, together with close to two million people, battled the freezing weather and attended the ceremony on the Washington Mall. 'It was an OK speech. It was too scholarly and aloof, and not very inspiring, with many mixed metaphors and very few applause lines. I had expected much more from a great orator like Obama. I would give the speech a B.'
I would grade Mr Obama's address an A+. It is true that the speech did not bring the listeners to their feet (since most of them were standing up anyway) and it is quite possible that it will not be recalled as the epitome of the art of public speaking.
But then the medium - the first African-American to elected as US president - was the message here, a point that Mr Obama did highlight in his address, noting that 'a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath'. And that line did win more than lonely applause. In fact, it rocked Washington Mall.
And I thought that there were many parts in Mr Obama's speech that captured the moment and will probably be read and reread by high-school students in the future, such as when he pointed out that 'we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness' and went to say: 'We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth. And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.'
But in a way, it was fitting that Mr Obama's address lacked the flourish and bombast that my friend seemed to be yearning for. Bluster and bravado is the kind of rhetorical tool that leaders employ when they try to mobilise their nation to confront an enemy and go to war.
In many cases, such rhetoric tends to ignite unfulfilled expectations and ensuing frustration, if not tragedies. Hence Mr Kennedy's insistence in his 1961 address that Americans need to 'let every nation know . . . that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty' may have provided the rationale for the costly US intervention in Vietnam.
And George W Bush's promise during his second inaugural address to spread freedom around the globe and to target the world's tyrannies reflected the messianic and destructive nature of his administration's foreign policy.
In contrast, Mr Obama's address displayed the pragmatic let's-get-to-business nature of his personality and presidency. Devoid of calls for launching grand ideological crusades at home and abroad, Mr Obama's speech could have been given by any centrist Democratic or Republican president whose main goal is to bid farewell to a partisan and ideological age of American politics, and to advance workable solutions to the nation's social and economic problems.
'The time has come to set aside childish things,' Mr Obama stressed, referring the political bickering in Washington. He criticised the 'irresponsibility' of all Americans, businesses and consumers that has brought about the current crisis and insisted that his willingness to use the power of the government would depend very much on 'whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified'.
And he reiterated his commitment to traditional American values of hard work and faith in the future.
When it came to foreign policy, Mr Obama seemed to be returning to internationalist and realist principles of traditional US foreign policy, avoiding threatening any 'axis of evil' or even mentioning the term 'war on terrorism'.
Instead, he projected a mix of tough pragmatism and soft idealism. 'We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,' he said, sending a message to the Irans and Venezuelas, the Syrias and the Cubas of the world, and addressing specifically the Muslim world. 'To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,' he said. But he still made it clear that America would respond with its fist against those who threatened its security: 'For those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.'
Now, Mr Obama will have to translate this rhetoric into concrete policies. But I think that the tone that he had struck in his address set just the right tenor for the next four years of his first term. That will require the kind of sensible and cool leadership which was missing in the last eight years and which America needs now.
The editorial is on page 3 today
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