Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How much can we infer from inauguration speeches?

My wife and I watched Obama's inaugural address last night, and I thought it had some exceptionally intriguing passages, such as his direct address to the Muslim world, and his several swipes at the outgoing administration. (I may blog about some of the more thought-provoking statements in a subsequent post.) As we all listened to those words, we probably all wonder how much of Obama's presidency is being foretold in his words. Of course, there's no way to know, but I thought it would be interesting to go back and read Bush's first inaugural address to see how much his words presaged his presidency.

I'm no political scientist, much less a presidential scholar, and am not particularly politically active. I have only written three posts, out of over 100, that had anything to do with politics. But for some reason you folks keep reading so I'll plow ahead. I reviewed the transcript and have repeated some of the better statements below:

"It is the American story—a story of flawed and fallible people, united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals." This seems to be a nice swipe at Bill Clinton's foibles of infidelity.

"The grandest of these ideals is an unfolding American promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, that no insignificant person was ever born." Although this could be read as an equal opportunity kind of message, I also read this as a message regarding his anti-abortion stance, which guided his actions over his two terms in a few ways. These include his failed effort on abstinence-only education and probably his most significant political action, his reshaping of the Supreme Court. The latter was one of the items in which he noted special pride in during his final press conference.

"The ambitions of some Americans are limited by failing schools and hidden prejudice and the circumstances of their birth." Another aspect of Bush's legacy was the No Child Left Behind legislation, another legacy item in which he expressed pride.

"And sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent, but not a country. We do not accept this, and we will not allow it. Our unity, our union, is the serious work of leaders and citizens in every generation. And this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity." OK, this is a meaty one that will require more than a sentence to summarize.

The country had just endured a very divisive and deeply flawed election. Democrats thought the election was stolen, and I don't know that we ever saw as much bitter partisanship on display as we did in the days between election day and the Supreme Court's final ruling. This statement would seem to indicate a willingness to try to heal those wounds and reunite the country into a "single nation."

We now know, however, that this was not a statement regarding reunification; that instead the Bush administration worked tirelessly to create a single nation of enduring Republican majority, rather than a bipartisan reunified nation. Karl Rove, Bush's master strategist, has spoken repeatedly of the pursuit of this goal (and has yet to give up on it, even in light of Obama's victory).

The examples of this pursuit were many. For example, we now know the Justice Department illegally used political affiliation in their hiring practices, although no connection has been made to Attorney General Gonzales or his predecessor Ashcroft. (Amusing side note: the liberal New York Times' article on this government watchdog report doesn't mention that lack of connection, yet the conservative Washington Times states it in the second paragraph. Talk about editorial biases.)

This same watchdog agency has yet to publish their findings on their investigation of the Justice Department attorneys. However, one aspect of those firings that has already been made public is that several of these attorneys had one thing in common, they did not vigorously pursue voter fraud. The aggressive pursuit of voter fraud, whether perceived or real, is one tactic frequently used to suppress minority voter turnout, which could be a component of an enduring Republican majority strategy.

There are other examples of working tirelessly toward a permanent Republican majority, including gerrymandering in Texas, Colorado, and other states, and probably no better example than the Bush's apparent disinterest in crossing the aisle to compromise on legislation.

None of this is anything but politics as usual, and I don't find it surprising that Bush pursued these activities. However, the depth and breadth of it would seem to indicate that Bush went into the presidency with no intention of creating a "single nation" built by reunifying in a bipartisan way, but rather by unifying the nation under Republican rule. Words can sometimes be tricky things, can't they?

"We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them. And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American." Bush tried and failed to achieve immigration reform, but he did build a very big wall.

"We will reform Social Security and Medicare, sparing our children from struggles we have the power to prevent." Bush tried and failed on Social Security, and won a modest victory with the Medicare prescription drug plan. As with immigration reform, he words predicted his efforts, just not his successes.

"We will confront weapons of mass destruction, so that a new century is spared new horrors. The enemies of liberty and our country should make no mistake: America remains engaged in the world by history and by choice, shaping a balance of power that favors freedom." In hindsight, these words might seem to foreshadow our invasion of Iraq, and there are some that say that Bush had the overthrow of Saddam Hussein on his agenda on the day he entered the White House. Certainly, according to both Clarke and Woodward (and ultimately the White House itself), the plans to attack Iraq began very soon after 9/11, even though there was no connection between the two. Coincidence?

Of course, those same words could have been intended to be more broad and to apply to what he came to call the "axis of evil," and meant nothing more than that Bush was ready to act swiftly and decisively against the threat of WMDs, wherever they appeared.

"Church and charity, synagogue and mosque lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws." Over the course of his presidency, Bush shifted government funds to faith-based initiatives for fighting poverty and other problems.

So, from several statements in Bush's speech, we can see several concrete examples foreshadowing his goals and intents. And, as can be seen from his statement regarding a "single nation" or possibly his statement regarding WMDs, that foreshadowing can be a little misleading.

What are we to make of Obama's speech, then? One article tries to capture it here and, as I said earlier, I may do a post of my own. What do you think?
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