Wednesday, 21 January 2009


Given all that's gone before, I'm not really surprised that Obama aced his inauguration speech yesterday. One of his greatest assets is his ability to speak authoritatively and intelligently, and he didn't drop the ball on this score yesterday.

What he did do that was perhaps surprising was, essentially, put the boot into the policies and failings of the previous administration. While thanking the Bush administration at the very beginning of his speech, and never making any directly critical statements, he very clearly drew a line under the Bush years. And, damningly, he did so not from a political standpoint, but from the perspective of the rule of law and the founding principles of the United States. It must have been an interesting experience for George Bush, sitting just a few metres away, hearing the depredations of his administration described in such unambiguous terms.

However, Obama's speech served only in part to underscore the problems inherited from the previous administration. To a greater degree it was more memorable for its honest laying out of the difficulties that the United States is facing, and Obama's plans in (extremely) rough outline for dealing with these. These positive aspects were more important and stirring than the rebukes dealt to the Bush administration.

Overall, I thought it was a really impressive performance. Judging from what limited information I've gathered from the media, some have already criticised it for having no stand-out sound-bites or definitive far-reaching policy statements. However, I'm not sure about what would count as such a milestone policy, or that Obama would actually be thanked for staking one out. Instead, I suspect that he'd be on the receiving end of oppositely-aimed complaint had he laid out some specific optimistic target.

While I can't remember the speech in detail, a couple of specific points that stuck out for me merit mention:

  • without mentioning it by name, Obama suggested that stem cell technology would be allowed to flourish under his administration

  • Obama was quite specific on engaging with the Muslim world, trying to address its ordinary members rather than its leaders

  • rather than appeal solely to the Christian base of the US, the speech acknowledged and reached out to other faiths, there was even a welcome nod to "non-believers"

  • there was a lot of strong language for science and technology, specifically where these mapped onto environmental or economic goals (though no "we choose to to go the moon")

  • In passing, while the invocation of the inauguration was overblown theological rhetoric from a known conservative windbag, the benediction, though still religious in content, was much more inclusive and invoked civil rights as much as the Almighty. Not surprising given that it was delivered by a prominent (and elderly) minister and activist, but he carried it off with a lot of dignity and even some humour. Though African American himself, he also mentioned the native Americans, a group whose absence from the US political stage is only rarely remarked upon.


    chimpaction said...

    I agree that it was a masterful speech. It struck me as very much a two-handed affair. Half of it was saying 'America, knuckle down and let's do some hard work' while the message to the outside world was one of willingness to cooperate and play ball on a wide range of issues.

    With regards to stem cell research, it indeed looks promising, but not quite the open season that some were worried about.

    NASA, while not specifically mentioned yesterday, is due for some loving, perhaps returning to a position of more power with the reintroduction of the NASA council.

    All of this and more is covered in the Science Debate 2008:

    Plumbago said...

    I think NASA possibly needs some time off from political meddling. It's been most successful scientifically from its unmanned programme, but it (and standing presidents) get most credit for forward-looking manned missions. As a result, its priorities get split. It might be helpful to be off the stage for a bit to sort itself out. But I say this as someone who rarely reads NASA stories beyond the captions on their (robot-acquired) photos!