It was full of gloom and doom, which is not what some of us might have expected from the “hope” President, but just the kind of realism the nation needs to hear. Finally someone who will ask us to step up to bat and make the sacrifices needed to turn the planet around!
(And frankly the enormity of the mess we’re in was hit home to me when my kids and I, desperate to see Obama sworn in during a layover in Charlotte, were told by the manager of the sports bar near our gate that the basketball game was more important than hearing this historic speech. If anyone can change this mentality that afflicts so many Americans, it’s Obama, but there is a long way to go.)
The kids and I spent that hour huddled around my MacBook Air instead, along with a growing crowd of other passengers. My initial reactions:
1) The “war” against “a network” is definitely not over, contra recent suggestions on this blog. Much of Obama’s rhetoric is surprisingly similar to that of the previous Administration. Jon Stewart captured this well last night.
2) Was he sending veiled cues to Israel when he said, the US will be “a friend to all nations”? Are we finally entering an era where the US will not only obey international law but make our alliances and partnerships contingent on similar good citizenship from our allies? And if so, would this be a good thing?
3) Despite being an unprecedented diversity-fest, this was a very monotheistic celebration. Prayers and benedictions were addressed to the Almighty, not to the female Goddess, the Taoist Creative, or the pantheon worshipped in many forms by American Wiccans, Native American communities, or other minority faiths. Obama made multi-faith references to Christians, Muslims, Jews and – importantly – to non-believers. But I was a little bothered by the juxtapositioning of the People of the Book with nonbelievers, dismissing the wide swaths of deeply spiritual people of faith within this country who do not subscribe to a view of God consistent with any of the Abrahamic faiths. Obama did mention Hinduism as well, and it is probably too much to expect him to rattle off an exhaustive list of spiritual and religious diversity within this country. Still, I felt the limits of this framing warranted mention.
4) Most remarkable in my mind was this: Obama made very few specific promises in this speech. The one time I heard him use the word “pledge” it was in reference not to ending torture, solving the global economic crisis, or combatting global warming; it was to reducing global poverty:
“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.”
To me, this seems like a surprisingly ambitious agenda – if he was going to pledge this, why not make some other pledges that are more within his capacity? Not to belittle the impact that a concerted US effort to combat poverty could have. President Obama could make an enormous difference immediately with such concrete steps as announcing that he will support the commitment of 7% of the US budget to non-mility foreign aid. This would still be a tiny fraction of US spending, but an enormous increase from existing spending on non-military aid. It would embody his messages of service, sacrifice, outreach to other nations. And, in addition to helping make a dent in global poverty, it would reduce one source of tension between the US and other OECD countries who already meet or exceed the 7% goal.