"Present" for the Inauguration

In deference to the office of the American presidency, and to Americans who lived through segregation and are rightly celebrating the change that put an end to it, I’ve been quiet about the inauguration — rather than rain on the parade. Having watched the festivities from afar, I took the Obama option, and merely weighed in with our TV remote as “present.”


But as everyone except maybe Bill Clinton starts to exhale, it’s time for business as usual. Yes, like almost everyone else, I wish Obama well; he is now my president. I hope he leads America to a fat and sassy new era of security and wealth. But realistically, as I watch Obama’s trillion-dollar-or-so “stimulus” package roll along (while Timothy Geithner frantically apologizes for not paying his taxes, so he can get confirmed as Treasury Secretary and catch up with the bandwagon), I have this nagging feeling that my husband and I need to be re-calculating our net worth, reflecting expected real income over the next decade or two — and the direction, the direction dictated by swelling government, collectivist programs, endless spending, and central planning gussied up as “duty,” the direction of all that is down, down, down.

Our main hope, based on what I’m hearing from Obama, would be to go ask some private investor to bankroll our household on grounds that we are planning to spend our way out of any financial problems. The worse it gets, the more we will spend. We’re willing to do whatever it takes — upgrade the furniture, re-paint the walls, invest in high-end electronics, put in a rock garden. Anything to stimulate our domestic economy. Then we have to hope we find an investor as inane and as flush with other people’s money as the U.S. government. 

On much of the spectacle surrounding the inauguration, the non-stop bread and circuses, flash and promise, filled me with foreboding. The whistle stop tour last weekend was ersatz; Lincoln took a train because they didn’t have airplanes in his day. Obama took a train because Lincoln did. The “We Are One” concert was presumptuous; The gloating commentary from many quarters about the departure of Bush did not sound like childish things were being left behind. I was listening to NPR on inauguration morning, and amid the talk of “a new dawning” and a “new way,” the phrase that really stuck, as the apotheosis of these Eva-Peron epiphanies was “renewable optimism.” Whether that is compatible with “sustainable” optimism, and whether that is the same thing as hope and change, I am not sure. It all seems to be plucked from the same bin in which George Orwell once foraged for examples of the abuse of language in service of questionable politics.


It’s of a piece with the phrase plastered on the home page of the new White House web site, which proclaims: “Change has come to America.”  Hey, wait a minute. That sounds like a campaign slogan. Something here is mixed up. When Obama was merely a candidate, he created a presidential-style seal to which he had no right, and between election and inauguration topped that off with the logo of “Office of the President-Elect.” Now that he is president, the White House web site has become a billboard for campaign slogans. …. Maybe that will pass. Or has he already left us dusting ourselves off in the dust, as he heads for 2012?

A lot of the most disturbing questions boil down to this “new era of responsibility” — the advance-leaked theme of his inaugural address (though Bill Safire makes a good case that the address actually had no memorable theme). Is he talking about individual responsibility? (It has a great track record; I’m for it.) Or is he talking about collective responsibility? (Apart from providing for the common defense, it is far more problematic). Does he expect us to be responsible for paying our own bills? Or does he expect us to be responsible for paying each other’s bills? There is a big difference.

Similarly, there is a lot of sludge at the bottom of Obama’s statement that “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.” Sounds great. But who measures, who decides what is “decent,” who decides what is dignified, and who doles it all out — and how and to whom? Government is all over our airline system these days. Is flying an experience that most of us still find “dignified”? The government runs the Social Security Administration. How well is that working?


On foreign policy, in which Obama must now contend with that nebulously described “far-ranging network of violence and hatred,” I wait with interest to see how HillaryandBill mesh with Joe Biden, Susan Rice, and the Iranian ayatollahs now expecting negotiations without preconditions (I see that North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, having taken whatever he could get from the Bush administration and then scrapped the denuclearization deal, is now feeling out the Obama team for a similar plan).

With luck, Obama will learn in office, and the price of his education will at least be close to what this country can afford. If luck fails, I am trying to comfort myself with memories of Russians I met, in Moscow and the FSU boondocks, while covering the immediate aftermath of the 1991 Soviet collapse. Many of them were glad the Soviet Union was gone. But some — while glad to find toilet paper in the shops — missed the days of “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” They would reminisce about the good old days, when with little work and less income, there had been a lot more time to commune around kitchen tables, drinking vodka and terrible white wine, and talking late into the night. It’s not quite the lifestyle choice I once had in mind — but I suppose it has its comforts.


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