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A conservative justification, a radical transformation

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Barack Obama spoke well yesterday - and as was appropriate, he did it his way. It might seem odd that a speech could be both so ambiguous and so inspiring, until you reflect that this has been his secret all along. He's the sensitive new-age guy with both pecs and a spine of steel. For the good of America and the world, it should only prove so.

Yesterday was partly about the historic occasion, of course. The power of the inauguration of the first black American president, even if he was not the descendant of slaves, inevitably overshadowed all else. No well-wisher of America could fail to be moved by this moment, so long in coming and yet so much earlier than most expected. It fell to Mr. Obama to find a speech that fit the occasion without being wholly swallowed up by it. He did so.

Forget about comparisons with Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King. This speech was vintage Barack Obama. The roots of his success lie not on the south side of Chicago, but in lower Manhattan. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have never felt safe or strong, nor been able to grasp America's proper place in the world or the status of its ideals, now so obviously hated by so many.

George W. Bush botched this formidable challenge. Fearing to ask too much of Americans, he asked too little. Compelled to simultaneously fund an unpopular war, the exploding costs of social programs and a tax cut, he borrowed from America's Chinese rival. By paying frequent homage to the hardships of the troops while urging other Americans to shop, he forever called attention to the glaring policy disconnect. Nor did he satisfy Americans that he was reconciling the exigencies of the "war on terror" with fidelity to the rule of law. By the time the financial meltdown struck, he had long been a lame-duck president.

Mr. Bush thus created a vacuum at the top, which has now been filled by Mr. Obama. The "audacity of hope" may sound either empty or wimpish until you recognize that the hope in question was for strong leadership. Mr. Bush failed to provide it, and John McCain, hampered by age and association with Mr. Bush, wilted in the glare of the campaign. Only time will tell whether Mr. Obama will provide it, but that was the premise of his election and the burden of his inaugural. Strength abroad, prosperity and competent management at home, a renewal of the American spirit - you wouldn't entrust this tall order to Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid, but Mr. Obama has persuaded Americans to entrust it to him. The inaugural sought to vindicate that trust.

Consider how it began and how it ended. It began with a pointed identification of the terrorist threat as the greatest challenge confronting America; only afterward did Mr. Obama proceed to the economic crisis. It finished with a quotation - not from Lincoln, not from Dr. King, not from Franklin D. Roosevelt, but from George Washington, whom Mr. Obama described as the father of his country. Yes, the same Washington who in one current American textbook receives only a single mention, and that for being a slaveholder.

Citing the crisis at Valley Forge as emblematic of the present situation, Mr. Obama merged the economic turmoil, the terrorist threat and the environmental crisis in a contemporary version of William James's "The Moral Equivalent of War." In the same vein, Mr. Obama likened the sacrifices of the white workers and black slaves who built America to those of the soldiers who defended it. By quoting and then repeating Washington's remark that only hope and virtue could see America through its crisis, he stressed the moral tone he wished to establish: service and sacrifice.

Mr. Obama can be politically incorrect; it may be his finest quality. "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defence," he said - nor indulge foreign whiners "who blame their societies' ills on the West." Mr. Bush couldn't get away with saying such things.

What does it all mean? That Mr. Obama has indeed seized the mantle of Lincoln in defending America without qualification because he identifies it with its highest ideals and greatest accomplishments, but demands of the citizens that they prove themselves worthy of these. He thus offers a "conservative" justification for what may or may not prove an attempted radical transformation of American society.

Whatever else you may say of him, he keeps you on the edge of your chair.

Clifford Orwin is professor of political science at the University of Toronto and distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

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