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First Words and Deeds


We’re just over one hundred hours into the Obama presidency now and Obama has acted decisively to implement a number of his promises from the election campaign–those which could be implemented with the stroke of a pen. He has also provided something of a map for his coming administration. His inaugural address and a series of presidential directives addressing issues relating to the treatment of detainees merit special attention. “President Obama uttered no words today that will be quoted in a hundred years” writes George Packer of the Obama inaugural address. He goes on to pay Obama a series of very high compliments, including that “he delivered something better than rhetorical excitement—he spoke the truth, which makes its own history and carries its own poetry.”

We’ll have to come back in ten years and see if this speech is being quoted. It has a number of marvelous rhetorical turns and memorable passages, and I think Packer may be wrong about its longevity, but he is right about its immediacy. Obama has shown, throughout his long journey to Washington, that he values political speech, that he considers it a vehicle for inspiring and moving the nation’s culture much in the way important political figures of the nineteen century did. He regularly delivers speeches that are more than flash and sizzle, that offer us something to chew over, debate and measure. He also pays close attention to his words; they have obviously been culled and sculpted with unusual skill. American political culture is not particularly rich in this sense, and in fact the arrival of broadcast media has cheapened the process. Could an American political figure today deliver a rhetorical gemstone that is the equal of Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech and survive? Does our age not in fact call for the eight-second sound bite rather than the well-reasoned argument? Have we abandoned that appeal to reason that was the cornerstone of political debate for the generation that founded our republic?

The Obama inaugural speech was a bit of a time machine. It carefully connected with prior presidencies and existential crises. Grave challenges face us today, it said, but they are almost trifling compared to the perils tackled and surmounted by earlier American generations. Take courage from the experience and wisdom that our forefathers offer. The keynote of this speech was unmistakably conservative–a sense of loss, an appeal to remember the nation’s better and nobler days and to take inspiration from them:

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those that prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor — who have carried us up the long rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

While several messages are woven together, one of the most important is a commitment to govern from the center on the basis of shared values. It is not surprising that this speech was extremely appealing to conservative commentators like Patrick Buchanan and Peggy Noonan and drew so much criticism from the left. On the other hand, even as Obama reaches out to traditional conservatives, he smacks the neoconservatives across the face, defining them and their conduct as far outside the mainstream of American culture.

We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man — a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake.

In a sweeping series of orders issued within the two days that followed, Obama provided a sense of what he meant by this. He detailed a process for shuttering the Guantánamo detention camps within the coming year (and hopefully earlier than that). He forbade the use of torture techniques that his predecessor had authorized. He shut down the CIA’s black sites and terminated its extraordinary rendition program. He explicitly reaffirmed the government’s commitment to abide rigorously by the commitments the United States made to the world under the Geneva Conventions and rejected the contrary opinions rendered by the Bush Administration’s Office of Legal Counsel, between September 11, 2001 and the hour Bush left office.

Joe Klein at Time magazine complains about the soft-spoken way that Obama went about all of this. He did not issue a statement rattling with condemnation of the abuses that marked the eight years of his predecessor’s rule. But Klein has missed a critical aspect of the Obama style. Obama is a law professor and in the earlier debate on these issues it was clear that he was versed in the legal policy details concerning the treatment of detainees. While Beltway chatterboxes debated whether Obama would follow the course charted by Vice President Cheney, those who tracked his views recognized this for nonsense.

There is also considerable artistry behind the orders. They do not take a machete to the age of Bush. Instead they tread lightly. Often they identify a single thread from the prior policy, which, once drawn, causes its objectionable aspects to fall away. They consistently go about resurrecting traditional American views—not asserting something novel. Obama’s orders are, in sum, a fine match to the Obama inaugural address. We are not witnessing the articulation of a new “Obama doctrine.” Rather it is the triumph of tradition and experience over eight years of aberrant bad judgment.

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