Tuesday, January 20, 2009

To hope and to dream

After weeks of wall-to-wall Obama-mania — particularly here in the Bay Area — I vowed not to add to clutter. But we turned on the inaugural address for my daughter, because it was something she was too young to understand four years ago and will only have one more to watch before she leaves home.

As with any presidential Big Speech, President Obama’s speech had soaring rhetoric and something to appeal to everyone. As with most such speeches, the encouragement to supporters and digs at rivals were mainly through passing lines, as with the inane phrase “we are ready to lead once more.”†

Overall, I thought it was an inspirational speech, well delivered — no surprise there. It nicely captured American exceptionalism and unlike some, did not endorse the view that the US is an empire in decline. It was not the speech that Al Gore would have given eight years ago, acknowledging the reality that the world has changed:

We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.
To me, the meat of the speech was an optimistic paragraph in the middle. I agreed with the first part:
We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. 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. Our capacity remains undiminished.
However, the remainder of the passage seems at best a hope, and more likely an unrealizable dream:
But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.
I can believe that the president would like to see that, but how much of his personal prestige and power is he willing to stake to make it happen?

He has 535 opponents in Congress, led by members of his own party, and there are other discouraging signs. Congress has been putting off unpleasant decisions for decades, including saving Social Security, fixing public schools and the twin fiscal and trade deficits. Most of all, Federal spending got worse under Bush 43, exacerbated by the 110th Congress — which vowed to end earmarks and pork-barrel spending and instead increased them.

The new Administration has promised to fix earmarks. However, the proposed fiscal stimulus package is built around the idea of government spending on pet projects in all 435 Congressional districts, and so the only question is whether the “pork” will be $2 billion or $20 billion or $200 billion.

Specifics and actions will be required to make a reality out of this dream of renewal. So far, the markets are not impressed, with the Dow down 2.5% and the S&P 500 down 3.5%.

† The US has been a world leader since 91 years, since April 6, 1917, and the leader of the free world since June 1948 if not 1941. People can (and will) argue as to whether it has been leading in the right direction, on the right issues, or with the right tactics (other remarks by the president argued this latter point). However, it would be intellectually dishonest to argue that the US has not shown leadership during the past 8, 16 or 28 years.

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