Obama’s inaugural address: Amid banalities, a call for austerity
- From: bodhi <psychedelictourist@xxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Thu, 22 Jan 2009 01:30:36 -0800 (PST)
Obama’s inaugural address: Amid banalities, a call for austerity
21 January 2009
In his inaugural address Tuesday, President Barack Obama offered
nothing in the way of concrete pledges or programs to confront the
economic crisis or bring an end to war. Instead, he indicated that the
American people would have to accept even greater sacrifices.
The pomp and ceremony dating back 220 years to the birth of the
American republic, reinforced by the accession of the first African-
American to the presidency, stood in sharp contrast to the banality of
Obama's words and the hollowness of his message.
For the millions who packed the Washington Mall, the emotions of the
day were driven by hopes that the coming to power of an African-
American would signify genuine change and by relief at the exit of
George W. Bush, whose first appearance on the Capitol steps drew loud
boos from the assembled crowd. At the end of the ceremony, the
departure over the Mall of the helicopter bearing Bush, the most hated
president in the country's history, drew a chant from the crowd most
often heard from sports fans jeering an opposing team: "Na-na-na-na,
Na-na-na-na, Hey Hey, Goodbye."
There was a general hope that the inauguration of a new president
would signal an end to an eight-year national nightmare that began
with a stolen election and brought two wars of aggression,
historically unprecedented attacks on constitutional rights, an
uninterrupted growth of social inequality and the deepest economic
crisis in modern American history. These sentiments were shared by
people around the world who watched international broadcasts of the
Yet Obama's speech seemed crafted in large measure with the aim of
damping down such expectations. The message universally trumpeted by
the corporate media, headlining the lead stories on the web sites of
both the New York Times and the Washington Post, was Obama's call for
a "new era of responsibility."
There is more than a small dose of irony in this invocation, as the
principle of responsibility is to be very selectively applied. In
recent weeks, Obama and his advisors have repeatedly made clear that
they have no intention of holding Bush, Cheney or other senior
officials in any way accountable for policies that constituted war
crimes and crimes against the Constitution during their tenure in
As for the deepest financial crisis in the history of American
capitalism, no one at the top bears any particular responsibility, at
least in Obama's estimation. "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," he declared at the beginning of the speech.
This formulation holds tens of millions of workers facing the loss of
their jobs and homes through no fault of their own equally responsible
for the present crisis as Wall Street executives and hedge fund
managers whose financial parasitism and criminality helped drag their
own institutions and the world economy into ruin.
Now Obama is telling working people that they must take
"responsibility" for the crisis that is destroying their livelihoods
by accepting deeper attacks on jobs, wages and social benefits, even
as trillions of dollars in public funds are used to bail out Wall
Street while its CEOs continue to draw down their seven- and eight-
figure compensation packages.
In some of Obama's rhetoric there were indications that he and his
speechwriters had attempted to mine the first inaugural address given
by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, in the depths of the Great
Depression. Clearly there are historical parallels, made ever more
apparent as the stock market plunged below the 8,000 mark Tuesday, its
broadest index losing over 5 percent of its value even as Obama was
being sworn in.
Yet what was most notable was Obama's inability to speak in the frank
manner of Roosevelt 76 years ago. What characterized the new
president's inaugural address above all was an appalling lack of
concreteness about anything.
When Roosevelt addressed the nation, he vowed to "speak the truth, the
whole truth, frankly and boldly." While he certainly did not do that,
and his aim was to save capitalism from social revolution, he did
speak in fairly explicit terms about what had created the crisis and
what he intended to do about it.
The crisis of the 1930s, Roosevelt declared, had arisen not because of
any lack of nature's "bounty" or "human efforts" to multiply it, but
because "the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed,
through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence." He
continued: "Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand
indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and
minds of men."
Obama appeared to have drawn part of his speech from the first part of
this conception, declaring, "Our workers are no less productive than
when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and
services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last
year." Left unstated, however, was why, if this is the case, the
economy is spiraling downward into depression with nearly 3 million
jobs wiped out in the US over the last year alone.
Involved in this evasion is a stunning level of contempt and
condescension towards those who support him. He obviously feels he
owes them no such explanation, and the less said the better.
Obama is unable to even mention the role of today's "money changers,"
who paid a large share of the money for his campaign and bankrolled
the inauguration itself. All of the vague rhetoric about "equality"
notwithstanding, it is their interests he intends to defend at the
expense of the broad mass of American working people.
This is the real significance of his claims to have transcended the
"stale political arguments of the past" about the role of government
and the capitalist market, and his vow that the time for "putting off
unpleasant decisions has ended."
"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or
too small, but whether it works... Where the answer is yes, we intend
to move forward," he said. "Where the answer is no, programs will
end." Again, there was no specificity about what programs will be
terminated, but in the past week he has indicated his intention to
radically cut back bedrock social programs, including Social Security
and Medicare, as a means of attacking the government's fiscal crisis.
"Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good
or ill," Obama continued. "Its power to generate wealth and expand
freedom is unmatched." He allowed that the present crisis showed the
need for a "watchful eye" and voiced the belief that the "reach of
prosperity" should be extended by offering "opportunity to every
willing heart." There is nothing here that could not have been lifted
from the speeches of Ronald Reagan or any of the other right-wing
politicians that have ruled on behalf of Wall Street and corporate
America for the last three decades.
It was no accident that, in illustrating the kind of actions he sees
as vital to overcoming the crisis, Obama cited the "the selflessness
of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose
their job." This, under conditions where workers all over the country
are being hit with cuts in hours and pay in the name of saving jobs,
even as bailed-out bankers reject any sacrifice whatsoever.
"War on terror" to go on
There was a second fundamental theme that ran through the speech,
which was that America's bellicosity and militarism will continue,
albeit with slightly greater attention to wrapping a predatory foreign
policy in the rhetoric of morality and altruism.
In the first substantive line of the speech, Obama declared, "Our
nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and
hatred." The implication was unmistakable: The "global war on terror,"
the pretext used by the Bush administration for launching two wars of
aggression, carrying out torture, extraordinary rendition, unlawful
detentions and domestic spying, continues unabated.
Obama vowed that under his administration, "We'll begin to responsibly
leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in
Afghanistan." There was not a word of criticism, however, for the
decision to launch these wars. Indeed, the incoming administration has
already indicated that far from leaving Iraq "to its people,"
occupation, on a more economical scale, will continue indefinitely,
while tens of thousands of additional US troops are to be sent to
Afghanistan in an escalation of the war there.
There was an ugly note of arrogance and jingoism in the speech, with
Obama declaring, "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will
we waver in its defense" and his chastisement of foreign leaders--
presumably in the historically oppressed countries of Africa, the
Middle East, Asia and Latin America--who "blame their society's ills
on the West."
He issued a rhetorical challenge to "those who seek to advance their
aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents," vowing, "We will
defeat you." Coming in the wake of Israel's three-week onslaught
against Gaza in which thousands of Palestinian innocents were killed
or maimed with US supplied weapons and the tacit support of a silent
Obama, these words reeked of hypocrisy.
Finally, Obama paid tribute to the US troops "who at this very hour
patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains," declaring "their spirit
of service" to be "precisely [the] spirit that must inhabit us all."
The newly inaugurated president thus provided a textbook definition of
modern militarism--upholding the ethos and spirit of the military as
the ideal for the nation--as the substance of his "vision" for
It was noteworthy, given the inauguration of the first African-
American president, that what went completely unmentioned was the
civil rights struggle—or, for that matter, any form of social
There are two reasons for such an omission. Obama has no intention of
encouraging such mass social struggles today, and he is anxious not to
offend the forces of social reaction upon which he rests and which now
Whatever his intentions, however, the immense economic and social
crisis that is now unfolding in America and across the globe will
produce such struggles and on an even greater scale. The policies that
are only hinted at in what was a banal and dishonest inauguration
speech are completely at odds with the social interests and
aspirations of the vast majority of the American people. Sooner rather
than later, they will produce a political confrontation and a new
eruption of class struggle that will challenge the foundations of US
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