January 21, 2009

He Already Looks Older

Congratulations and Godspeed to President Obama. I can't remember who remarked this afternoon about him already looking older after the inauguration, but one can only imagine the pressures that immediately descend on him tonight. I wish him well, and am resolved to grant him the presumption of good faith that many political opponents of George W. Bush never for a second allowed him.

I probably went about taking in the inaugural address backwards...first reading snippets of text along with blog commentary during the afternoon....then hearing audio excerpts on the radio on the way home from work...and finally seeing the video in its entirety last. Of course the speech seems better when you see and hear him give it, but by now no one on the planet doubts his skills at delivering a speech with energy, poise and flair. And since this is probably the last time he'll be able to get away with a dynamic delivery in the absence of hard specifics, he can be permitted to put off telling us what he actually means until tomorrow.

He did take a couple of gratuitous slaps at his predecessor though, and I thought they diminished the speech and him.

And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.(emphasis mine)

The new President may disagree with the direction or the priorities chosen by his predecessor, but it's nonsensical to say that American leadership has been absent...or that our country under the Bush administration has been "unready" to lead. Especially when Bush's leadership on any number of issues, from combating terrorism, to cultivating democracy, fighting AIDS, and championing the sanctity of human life, among many other things, is so obvious.

It's of a piece with the kind of self-regard in his line about people looking back at the start of the Obama presidency as "the time when the planet began to heal." And that before spending a day in office. So it was again with a line later in the inaugural....

"...to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders"

Even though this is his call to those other wealthy nations, he includes us in his admonition. Yes, now that Obama is President, America can begin caring about human suffering around the globe.

George Bush might be fairly criticized for lots of things, but indifference to human suffering in the world is decidedly not one of them. Unprecedented AIDS relief spending and activism in Africa... leading a coalition to liberate 50 million Muslims from brutal dictatorships in the Middle East... billions in relief and logistical aid to tsunami victims...a persistent and principled voice for liberty and self-government for the people in Burma and Iran and Cuba and China who are living under oppressive regimes of various stripes...the quiet diplomacy that resulted in a peace agreement in Sudan with the rebels in the South...the list goes on.

I trust and hope that Mr. Obama's commitment to the relief of global human suffering someday approaches that of Mr. Bush. It is something he can strive for, and we'll surely take note of his results. But for a guy who on this day "proclaim[ed] an end to...petty grievances", at times he came off as a guy taking cheap shots at his predecessor, and talking down to his country, as if America's virtue and compassion for its fellow man just rode in on a white horse.

On balance though, a good speech, and one that gave some comfort to folks who fear one thing or another about a President Obama. After today, for the first time, he'll be judged on the basis of what he does instead of what he says. The world awaits.

UPDATE 1/26: Interesting to see that Jay Nordlinger among others had similar thoughts about the speech's cheap (and false) shots at Bush. And this same distressing "smallness of spirit" has been noticeable in lots of places this first week.

Posted by dan at January 21, 2009 12:32 AM