Obama's empty words

21:23, Jan 22 2013

Maybe it is that I'm knee-deep in the largest cinema-watching orgy of my lifetime at Sundance (14 movies so far in five days) and my critical senses have been engaged into overdrive, but I felt tremendously discouraged and off-put by Barack Obama's second inaugural speech yesterday.

I'm a sucker for a good inauguration, too. I love the (probably needless) pomp America brings to its biggest occasions. The people gather in the hundreds of thousands. Beyonce sings. There're always a couple of great celebrity sightings and lots of crowd shots of people looking earnest and emotional, all set to stirring music. Really, what's not to like?

Can you imagine even 20,000 people gathering down Lambton Quay to watch John Key get sworn in for another term as prime minister and addressing the country at large, all eager to here what he has to say?

Even imagining a New Zealand comparison is a bit silly.

So far as empty, over-the-top, conspicuous gestures of chest-beating American-ness go, I think the inauguration is a pretty good one.

But this speech yesterday was just a turkey. It said nothing. It was devoid of specificity and rhetoric.


At points, Obama's speech was openly dishonest.

Such as:

"We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law."

Strength of arms, yes: America spends five times as much on its military as China. But Obama's open reference to upholding the rule of law is a bit funny, given that his administration has authorised killings of American citizens, maintained a terrorist "kill" list, prosecuted more whistleblowers than any other administration in history and generally continued or accelerated every unpopular national security policy introduced by the Bush administration, among other things.

"We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom." 

American international intervention is largely dictated by alliances and its own needs. The attention it has given to the Middle East, while bringing about some good, is motivated by self-interest. America is not compelled to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. The United States cares about revolutions in countries with oil, supporting Israel, and stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons capabilities. The raft of African civil wars and genocides invariably get much less attention.

But mostly, the speech was incredibly vague.

"We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate."   

It is all well and good to say this. But knowing from recent memory (like three weeks ago recent) that resounding electoral defeat didn't persuade a destructive and divided House majority of Republicans of the merits of compromise and with all of this happening after such a negative election that when it ended every man, woman and their dog called for a change in the tenor of national debate, what does this instruction mean? Because absolutism has become principle in American government and politics is spectacle. You're too late, Obama. You need to try to suggest a direction for change, not state a blind wish.  

"Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity."

The changing, diversifying nature of the American voting pool has put immigration reform at the top of the pile for the simple reason that each party wants to be the one that put some form of a deal through so they can use that achievement to win votes. This line acknowledges the issue of immigration and the need for the system to address reality much better than it does, but there're no teeth in it. There's nothing he can be held to.

"For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America's prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class."

America's prosperity currently doesn't rest upon a rising middle class. The United States has the highest rate of income inequality among developed countries. A shrinking few are doing very well. The economic recovery has been mostly profit with little job creation and benefits staying with owners, not workers. These words acknowledge a problem but are put in the guise of a mission statement, framing a belief but not an action.

And then dotted around the speech, Obama reached for lyrical, philosophical bows to tie different parts up. But not coming in between anything specific, these flourishes rang empty:

"We must act, knowing that today's victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall."

We must act? But... but... you haven't actually described any action?

The inauguration speech is not supposed to be a policy document. But what was delivered was 2000 words vaguely referencing things that we know Obama already believes and might do and things that he has already done (some of which were great).

Obama threw in all of the same tricks of oratory in his speech as he always does: the lists building to a crescendo, the talk of the long and valiant struggle and the repetition of a single tag to link the speech (yes we can, we the people, etc).

It was a performance that we've all seen before. It elicited no different a reaction in me than a new Foo Fighters album. Sure it was elegant. But Obama's done elegant already. I was looking for something real.

The speech was out of sync and tone with the problems of a broken American government and a struggling economy. 

Think of Lincoln's second inaugural address: it was sombre, reflective and brief, acknowledging his first speech and the tough times America had come through in the Civil War. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech" - to which Obama's biggest speeches are often compared - is lyrical but still precise.

Obama's address was simply noise, lacking reflection and self-awareness as it shot for the history books with little regard for actual history.

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