President Obama’s inaugural address could hardly hope to live up to the hype. We were told he’d studied Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan (not Clinton?) to prepare, and the nation sat poised on the edge of its collective seats to hear the course the new Administration will chart.
And, yet, after days of anticipation, abiding the delivery of a personally written masterpiece from an acknowledged expert in oratory, we recline, post-address, puzzled and disappointed. Delivered of a fat, hanging curve, in front of a nation desperate for him to succeed and fully prepared to riotously applaud even the poorest single, Obama swung mightily, and pathetically whiffed.
While one hardly expected a policy exegesis, this effort provided absolutely no specifics and, curiously, lacked the sort of soaring oratory for which its author became famous. Leaving aside Lincoln’s beautifully crafted inaugurals – the first of which warned the south of the consequences if they continued along the path of treason, the second celebrating the promise of peace and reunification – or Jack Kennedy’s memorable commitment to defend liberty and his exhortation of Americans to the cause of freedom around the world, most such speeches have soon evanesced into the ether. Obama’s promises to be of that nature. Interestingly, Bush’s second inaugural, reminiscent of many of Kennedy’s themes, might have qualified as memorable, but much of the country, and the entire left, refused to follow down the road upon which Bush wished to embark.
The President spoke in broad platitudes. We should assess, he said, whether programs work and, if not, end them. Great. And rotsa ruck with that. Federal programs never end and, to their beneficiaries, always work. Not a single Democratic Member of Congress, outside of the Blue Dogs, ran in anticipation of ending so much as a single program, except, perhaps, military and intelligence programs.
Take Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, demonstrable failures if ever a failure existed. What, pray tell, are the odds that Chuck Schumer, Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, and Nancy Pelosi will allow something as trivial as patent failure and economic disaster to color their perspective on these programs? And what are the odds that Obama will spend a nickel’s worth of his political capital fighting to end them?
Ominously, the President apparently believes, as per Jon Corzine, that government exists to "responsibly share our economic bounty". That sort of thinking got us into this mess in the first place.
Obama spoke of shared sacrifice, of the willingness of workers to cut their hours (and, presumably, their pay) rather than see their fellows get the axe. We need to introduce him to the public employee unions in New Jersey for a reality check.
And the President spoke of "responsibility". That’s an interesting word to employ. Responsibility knows many forms: personal, family, community, national. Individual and collective. And it comes in various gradients.
First, responsibility means assuming the consequences for one’s own actions and, generally, the left staunchly opposes governmental policies which tend to reinforce – or expect – individual responsibility, from abortion to welfare to retirement security. Indeed, virtually the entire leftist ideology revolves around strenuous opposition to programs which empower individuals, from school choice to health savings accounts to personal retirement accounts. The left almost never asks why someone finds himself in difficulty – that is to say, if it was his own fault – and contends that insisting that people shoulder the burdens they themselves create constitutes "blaming the victim". Consider how steadfastly leftists opposed – and, often, continue to oppose – work requirements for public assistance. Simply put, individual responsibility ranks extremely low on the leftist totem.
Second, just how far is society prepared to go to turn moral obligations into legal responsibilities? Reciprocally with its disdain for individual responsibility, the left loves collective responsibility: not only should you be your brothers’ keeper, you MUST be. And, so, "responsibility" translates into a plethora of economic "rights". Quoth Corzine, "health care is a right". And so are taxpayer funded pre-school, primary education, secondary education, college education, abortion, child care (for the survivors), housing, heat, power, clothing, food, long term care, etc. These of course, must be paid for by taxes.
This produces a curious dynamic. As taxes constitute a first claim on one’s income and property, the effect of all these "rights" and guarantees is to put essentially everyone else in the country – or, at least, those receiving governmental benefits – ahead of one’s own family and children. BEFORE a taxpayer pays for anything for his own kids, he must pay – in the form of taxes – for all sorts of programs and goodies benefitting someone else’s kids. This, a conservative observes, is the polar opposite of what "responsibility" properly entails. The correct dynamic is to attend to your own needs and those of your family and, if there’s anything left, assist those less fortunate, not vice versa.
President Obama also noted "our collective failure to make hard choices" – agreed – but never mentioned what those "hard choices" are, or, facing "unpleasant decisions", which options he prefers. He spoke of meeting challenges, without the slightest hint of what those challenges are or what policies he will adopt to meet them. He returned repeatedly to the theme of "hard work"and celebrated "risk takers", presumably as the engines of economic prosperity, but strongly implied that much of the return on that hard work and risk will be seized to "extend … our prosperity".
This, of course, will stifle the very growth necessary to fund the sort of programs he apparently desires. Just as Governor Corzine’s socialist aspirations have repeatedly been smashed to smithereens by the fact that they also happen to destroy the economy, so Obama will be faced with a similar dilemma: the more he attempts to employ government to extend the reach of our prosperity, the less prosperity there will be to extend. If he truly wants to provide the most possible prosperity for the largest number of people, he will start worrying about GDP and stop worrying about how it’s distributed, leaving that homily up to the Rick Warren's of the world.
Obama remains a cipher. This speech offered mere hints about his thought processes and policy preferences. It utterly failed to inspire or to set a course for the country. Perhaps afraid of promising too much, Obama decided to promise nothing at all.