January 21st, 2009

Inaugural throat clearing

The festivities were joyous and interesting to behold. But life in the Scientific Civilization is no party.

The inaugural address was drafted by a 27-year old and its first scripted sentence — “Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath” — was false.

(There have been 44 distinct administrations but 22 and 24 were presided over by the same American, Grover Cleveland. )

It’s odd, then — superstitiously disturbing in a small way — that the first sentence of this eloquent president, a man concerned like Jimmy Carter with speaking truth to the public, by adopting its conceit and then employing “American,” seems almost to have gone out of its way to misspeak. Spilled wine at a wedding toast …

Moments before uttering his first falsehood, the president smiled as Chief Justice Roberts stumbled in his own attempt to show the world that he’s the very smartest boy in the class.  (Roberts chose to recite rather than read the presidential oath, then flubbed it by first passing over and then misplacing the word “faithfully.”)

Obama — who as a senator voted against Roberts’ nomination — was sharp and smooth to pause when Roberts uttered his error. 

But it seems the president may not have said precisely the 35-word oath prescribed by the main body of the Constitution.  If so, most constitutional wonks seem to think it doesn’t matter given the 20th amendment.  But are right-wing headcases blogging this morning about the new president’s legitimacy?

Cheney in the wheelchair seemed Dr Strangelove, especially as he yanked on a black leather glove while rolling down a ramp exiting the White House.  Mein Fuhrer I can valk


Obama’s talk thru the first half of the speech about responsiblity and sacrifice reinforces worries that the new administration will do little to undo the ill economic effects of Reaganism.

Indeed, it seems (from several reports out of the inner circle aired on the tube Monday and yesterday) that Social Security and Medicaire will be targeted.  Rather startling. To think that a long-anticipated reduction of working-class supports might be attempted by the most powerful Democratic constellation in DC since Reagan, as the GOP smiles from the sidelines.

I continue to get MyObama emails asking for donations without a word as to what purpose the money might be put.  If it turns out that the Congress dominated by Democrats will obstruct Obama’s sacrificial notions, perhaps we will see him go the way of Teddy Roosevelt, who in 1912 left the GOP (under which he had served as Vice President and then President) to form the Bull Moose Party, a short-lived and unsuccessful affair.

A two-party system makes sense in this respect:  it concentrates as much power as may be available for the two basic components of any society:  the Haves and the Have-Nots.  If the class struggle is one of the “childish things” (from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians) that the president’s tweenage writer intended to target yesterday, he and I will probably be disappointed (for different reasons).


The international half of the speech was hopeful.  Several great things were said in simple language.  This morning Obama is suspending prosecution activity at Guantanamo.  One way or another it seems it will be shut down.  If he drags his feet there, however, it will be an early indication of reverting to mean.

The incumbent chairman of the Pentagon, Admiral Mike Mullen, chatted for the tube at the CinC’s Inaugural Ball last night.  He seems a nice fellow and quite deferential to the new CinC, but it remains clear that both McCain and Obama last spring were apprised of and accepted the coming aggressive policy in Pakghanistan.

Mullen’s deference, then, may be deceptive; the policy is a child of the post-Rumsfeld National Security Apparat, seated it seems more in the Pentagon than CIA (although maybe I’m the more deceived).


Also today, wounded Treasury nominee Timothy Geithner is facing his Congressional betters.  His opening statement contained nothing of substance as to how to best spend the remaining $350 TARP cash, nor anything confessional or apologetic about the various missteps, including his own, that led to the current debacle.

But he spoke of a new Obama plan for the banks — and, while introducing Geithner, fomer Fed chairman Paul Volcker told the people’s reps that the rescue would cost several trillion more.

Despite his recent past and ancillary political problems, perhaps Geithner is the best candidate willing to take on the job.  I’m not against him so much as against the idea that he (or any one) is essential for the Treasury post.  It requires neither an artist nor a magician.  Implying that it does continues to obscure what’s wrong.

Recall that an explicit aim — ask Jude Wanniski and Jack Kemp — of Reaganomics was to paralyze the federal government with debt, when it was clear that the Congress would never consent to dismantle the New Deal and take us back to the Gilded Age.  Reagan told the world in his own first inaugural that government is the problem; Wanniski, Kemp, David Stockman & co. then sold a way to take it out of commission.

The current debacle is achieving this aim, however and with however much malice aforethought it may have come about.  Bush-Cheneyism has already more than tripled the national debt left behind by Reagan and Bush pere (who themselves tripled it), and Volcker, as noted, today growled about trillions more while introducing President Obama’s chosen point man.

Also recall the fears of some right-wingers about the globalizing North American Union movement, which, re economics, would dump the dollar and replace it with a new currency spanning Mexico, the US and Canada.  The current debacle may be taking us down that road, in that the one thing all financial pundits seem to agree on is that our $11 trillion and counting national debt means the dollar is toast against Asian currencies.  Long-term and perhaps mid-term (2-5 yrs).

(Against the Euro and the Pound …?   There it’s a race to the bottom, but I guess when dust settles the dollar will suffer the worse. )

Keeping the toasted dollar would work against globalization in many ways. It would reduce the flow of cheap goods from Asia into the US and stimulate the return of domestic american manufacturing.


It may turn out that the best lasting effects of Obama’s presidency will be cultural:  Gangsta hipsters and Identity Politics out of style.  And, most importantly and astoundingly, this residing sense that the Civil War is over and that American society has taken a huge irreversible step in the direction of its ideals.  Things to smile about as we go under.

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  1. Surfwalker says:

    I, like many American intellectuals, found the inaugural address disappointing. It seems, however, to be playing well internationally. I’ve suggested previously that Obama has potential for becoming the first American president to be embraced more or less globally as “leader of the free world.” Having subsisted as an foreign-based language consultant for two years now, I can state that English-language-based international communication is more of a black art that might be imagined. I wonder to what extent translatability considerations, etc., partly explain the relatively disappointing character of the speech.

    January 22nd, 2009 at 7:45 am

  2. ed says:

    Aha, today Obama and Roberts got together to re-do the oath.

    January 22nd, 2009 at 2:03 pm

  3. ed says:


    I don’t understand what you mean (literally) in your last sentence.  (Not disagreeing, simply don’t understand the sentence.)

    I wasn’t disappointed (emotionally) by the speech.  It left me smiling.  But that’s mostly because the back half was about the wide world.

    As to these United States, I’m still waiting to see how much of a Reaganite Obama really is. May take a while to find out. Most of what he shows and tells is anti-Reaganism. But then there are flashes out of the blue, which I judge to be contradictions in his thinking.

    The only way to construe the package as non-contradictory, it occurs to me, is to imagine that the facts of socioeconomic life have changed with the ascension of Obama. And of course I don’t think that. But maybe he does.

    January 22nd, 2009 at 2:11 pm

  4. ed says:

    Paul Krugman too was disappointed with the side of the speech addressing economics, and seems to have been left wondering (like me) what Obama will really be about.

    Krugman is good to emphasize the vapidity and falseness of Obama’s repeated assertions re responsibility  and the notion that we’re in this mess because we all got piggy.  False. The American working class has not pigged out.  It’s been under assault and losing time, wealth and quality of life for 30 years.

    Today, Friday, the congressional leaders gathered with the president to chew over the big stimulus package.  This bloated thing may be a good idea, but it’s ancillary to the central problem:  the finance system.  If Obama does not come out next week with a big new idea and plan here (buying mortgage bonds and other wounded assets from the banks is in the air) the markets are going to hit new lows.

    It’s beginning to seem that Obama has no big or new idea for the banks.  Perhaps the delay of Geithner’s appointment is in part to blame for this appearance (which one hopes prove false).

    January 23rd, 2009 at 3:23 pm

  5. Surfwalker says:

    The assumption behind my point is uncontroversial–that translation to other languages, cultures, etc., often involves tradeoffs. It’s not always, if ever, possible to tailor a message to play optimally domestically and internationally. Obama’s recent Al Arabiya interview demonstrates the level of his concern with how his message is interpreted internationally.

    January 27th, 2009 at 1:34 pm

  6. ed says:

    Most of the disappointment with Obama’s speech was domestic, though … (Isn’t that what you said?)  Seems those listening to translations were happy.
    The Al Arabiya interview was a great idea. Also the notion of going to a muslim capital to give a major speech. Astounding. It’s why the world has good cause to love the new president.

    But at the same time he is — and has been — a strident Israeli loyalist. (EG As a brand new senator he was loud in support of the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.)

    So … Here too (in the mideast as on Wall Street) I’m left wondering what’s really going on between the president’s ears.  Maybe all he’s saying is give peace a chance. Nice song. But there’s no evidence since 1948 peace that way lays.

    I guess the best analysis of his various love songs is that he wants the leaders of the arab and other islamic states to hew to the center and join the West in prosecuting their radicals.  Ie, it’s the arab politicians he’ll be demanding Change and sacrifice from, not the Israeli.  And his first act Over There last week was to greenlight the continuation of the Bush-Cheney-Gates-Mullen drone raids in Pakistan.  Net change: near nil.

    Did you see Roger Cohen’s piece about the Gaza assault in the NYROB?

    And this great piece by Juan Cole on the Pakghanistan escalation?

    The worry in each case, emphasized but not alleved by the appointments of Mssrs Mitchel and Holbroke, is that Obama is something of an innocent abroad.

    January 27th, 2009 at 9:36 pm

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