Washington Babylon — January 21, 2009, 10:14 am

The Obama Doctrine?

Barack Obama’s inauguration speech had some nice moments. I especially liked the section near the end where he said:

In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: “Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it).”

(That quote, incidentally, comes from Thomas Paine.)

But it seems unlikely to rank as one of the better inauguration speeches ever delivered and didn’t even seem up to Obama’s usual standards. By comparison, FDR’s 1933 inaugural speech was more impassioned and inspiring, had a clearer call for collective sacrifice and was tougher and more specific about who was to blame for the country’s problems.

The rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men…The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live…

Finally, in our progress toward a resumption of work we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order; there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments; there must be an end to speculation with other people’s money, and there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.

There was one moment in Obama’s speech that was genuinely troubling, the Bush-like line, “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense.” Isn’t that just a capsule summary of American foreign policy since World War II, and even earlier? Apologizing for our way of life is probably politically impossible, but acknowledging that our way of life generates resentment abroad — and I’m talking about the American share of global resources — seems like an essential first step towards fixing foreign policy.

Note: As Jonathan Schwarz emailed me, Obama did say, “we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect.” That’s a good point I should have noted, but I still wonder how that gets reconciled with the line I cited above.”

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