No Idea What He's Doing

No Idea What He's Doing

By Robert Tracinski - January 23, 2009

The theme of Barack Obama's inaugural address Tuesday was supposed to be "a new era of responsibility," or something like that. There was no actual sign of that theme in the speech itself. Sure, "responsibility" was mentioned a few times--but the comments were too few and too fragmentary to amount to any kind of "theme."

Instead, most of the speech was padded out with clich├ęs and bromides. The New York Times ran a rotating selection of lines from the speech at the top of its home page, and what struck me most was the contrast between the reverential placement of these lines and their forgettable dullness. For example, Obama boldly came out in favor of "hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism"--the most superficial and anodyne list of traditional American values one could possibly compile.

I had expected Obama to crib from Lincoln or Roosevelt. Instead he cribbed from Dorothy Fields: "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." Or take this deathless line: "Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter." Is there any phrase more painfully overused in Washington than "our children's children"?

There is a great irony in the respective reputations of Bush and Obama when it comes to giving speeches. Bush is viewed as an inarticulate dolt, but he hired excellent writers who frequently produced good, thoughtful, substantive speeches, which he then marred with a flat and uncomfortable delivery. By contrast, Obama has a great reputation for eloquence--because he is adept at giving a smooth, charismatic delivery to the oratorical equivalent of Hallmark greeting cards.

For all of the emptiness of Obama's speech, however, he did express one central idea: he is against ideas.

"On this day," he declared, "we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics." He went on to expand by what he means about rejecting "worn out dogmas."

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them--that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works--whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified....

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control--and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

It is basic choices between opposing principles that Obama is telling us are "stale" and "no longer apply." And if you think that ideas and principles still matter, you're a cynic!

Thus, Obama begins his administration by declaring that he will run the government while rejecting any overarching ideas and principles regarding the proper role and scope of government action. He starts by telling us, in effect, that he has no idea what he is doing.

This is why the rest of the speech sticks to conventional bromides and tries to split the difference on every big issue. Big government versus small government; free markets versus government controls; personal responsibility versus the welfare state; vigorous national defense versus diplomatic temporizing. Where does Obama stand on these issues? Nowhere. This is what a cipher sounds like.

A number of commentators on the right--conditioned by years of conservative opposition to "ideology"--have been reassured by the anti-ideological theme of Obama's speech. But I am not reassured, because our leaders need to have an ideology. If they are to protect liberty, they need to have a clear idea of what liberty is, why it is indispensable, and what limits it places on goverment.

And of course, Obama does have an ideology. Everyone does, because no matter how much they may struggle to avoid taking a stand, every action they take is an implicit answer to life's big questions. As for Obama, we know that he has spent his whole life in the company of ideological leftists. These were serious ideologues, ranging from Marxist college professors to preachers of "black liberation theology." Now he wants to convince us--and, who knows, maybe himself--that he has no firm ideological commitments. But what could be a clearer indication of his ideology than his desire to free government--at least in the realm of economics--from the limitations of ideas and principles?

Decades ago, we had another president who came into power during an economic crisis, who also had no idea what he was doing and engaged instead in "bold, persistent experimentation"--with his only absolute being that he would not let the free market work. That was FDR. The result? The economic crisis lasted another decade and actually deepened under his leadership. If Obama's speech is what a cipher sounds like, the Great Depression is the kind of result that is produced when an ambitious cipher attempts to offer vigorous leadership.

Let us hope that there will be enough people who do have ideas about the proper limitations on government, and that they can restrain any bold and persistent experimentation coming out of the Obama White House. Having learned so many valid ideological lessons from the disasters of the 20th century, it would be a crime to have to learn them all over again.

Robert Tracinski is editor of The Tracinski Letter and a contributor to RealClearMarkets.

Robert Tracinski

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter