Ira Chernus: Obama's Promise of Change Comes Wrapped in Red, White and Blue

Roundup: Historians' Take

Obama's speech shows that there's no reason to let the right monopolize the powerful language of traditional American values.


Like any important speech, Barack Obama's inaugural address was actually several speeches rolled into one. Each string of rhetoric the new president wove on this historic occasion holds different meaning for American progressives, a weary group following eight disastrous years of conservative war and plunder and hungry for a brand of change that goes far beyond a slogan. Ultimately, it was a mixed bag -- hopeful signs, but of a distinctly conventional sort of change. A dramatic move from the far reaches of the right, but with threads that conservatives might have found attractive.

Let's start with the inaugural address as a message to the nation's governing elite. The Beltway pundits saw it as "a stark repudiation of the era of George W. Bush," in the words of New York Times columnist David Sanger. When Obama said, "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some"; when he observed that, "Without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. … A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous"; when he promised to "restore science to its rightful place" and warned that the "ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet" ; when he promised to "harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories" -- these were all subtle digs at Bush-era policies and signs that the new administration would turn in directions that progressives could applaud.

On foreign policy, too, there were a few shots at Bush's era -- some promise of a more-progressive approach: "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," he said. "Power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. … Our power grows through its prudent use." He promised "to work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat and roll back the specter of a warming planet."

There were other lines that might gladden progressive hearts. He said there was a role of government in creating "jobs at a decent wage" with "health care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified." He was inclusive, reminding the country that "our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers" (that last word a daring one in a nation that will elect a president of any color, but not an atheist).

But that was about it. Enough to strike D.C. insiders as a sharp break with the Bush administration -- surely good reason to celebrate after eight long years in the darkness. But not enough, perhaps, to impress those who want the heralded "change" to bring a deep and far-reaching transformation of our government's key institutions and power structures.

Of course, most of us progressives who put in long hours working for the Obama campaign had no such illusions. We knew from that start that our candidate was never really a progressive by our standards. Whatever his deepest inclinations might be, he is, above all, a pragmatic politician who aims to win. He picks his battles carefully, never takes on a fight unless he thinks he'll be victorious, piles up political capital by helping others with their own winnable battles, and calls in those chips to score victories on issues he really cares about. As a cautious politician, it's up to us to keep up the pressure, creating the political winds that might push him to the left.

The administration Obama put together shows his approach. He will let the foreign policy and Wall Street establishments keep charge of their bailiwicks. He'll fight no major contests on those fronts. Then when the crunch comes on the domestic issues that matter most to him -- health care, energy and the environment, help for the unemployed -- those elites will back him, or at least stand aside, making it far harder for the conservative movement to defeat him....

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