In perusing President Barack Obama’s speeches before yesterday, one might have expected him to use the occasion of his inaugural address for rhetorical flair, as in his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there is the United States of America.”
Perhaps he would reflect on the challenge of racial reconciliation, as he did in his response to the controversy surrounding his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright: “The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and, yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.”
And it seemed certain he would premier fresh language by which to translate the founding for modern ears, as in his speech to supporters after the New Hampshire Democratic primary: “It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes we can.”
In his inaugural address, Obama surprised such expectations. Eschewing soaring phrases, he approached his subject in a spirit of “humble gratitude.” He mentioned America’s history of racial oppression only as a dark period out of which the nation has now “emerged.” And he reclaimed the founding in the decidedly pre-modern language of “duties.” Obama’s inaugural took the form of a sustained argument for the continued strength of western civilization in the American experience, against its economic, military and cultural critics.
Against the early economic critics of the modern state, such as Marx, Obama unequivocally laid claim to the market as “a force for good.” More substantially, however, Obama took on the allegations of present-day detractors, such as Castro and Chavez, who suggest the market functions merely for the benefit of the rich and at the cost of public virtue. By contrast, Obama grounded the functioning of the market in the famed American ethic that favors “work” over “leisure,” whose heroes are the “risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things.” The recent decline of the American economy, then, is not a natural result of the market, but a “collective failure to prepare the nation for a new age.”
Against contemporary critics, especially in the Muslim world, of the strength and resolve of the West, Obama sought to restore the unity of “our safety and our ideals,” whereby Americans need not become guilty on behalf of or servile before the mechanisms of national defense. Americans “will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense.” Thus the ultimatum: “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.”
Against the cultural critics of the West, who worry the logic of individual rights leads to a creeping atomization and the breakdown of social order, Obama sought to situate the creed of individual rights in the broader context of necessary duties, to “ourselves, our nations and our world.” In such a context, “liberty” is not atomizing, but the principle by which “men and women of every race and every faith may join together in celebration.”
In sum, Obama’s inaugural address constituted an attempt to theorize America as a nation substantially immune from the internal vicissitudes of the modern political project.
The major problem in the contractarian political tradition, in which obligations are legitimate only by consent, is that the virtues necessary to any social order cannot be independently rationally justified. Thus the “values” Obama designated — “hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism” — are “old” because they are the constructs of a different era no longer justifiable today.
Obama’s inaugural address constitutes a proclamation of his attempt to make America an exception to that rule. It will be a difficult project, but a worthy one.
Peter Johnston is a senior in Saybrook College.