Obama’s Prefabricated Henhouse: Notes on The 2013 Inaugural Address, Part II

Lambert Strether blogs at Corrente.

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. … As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse. – George Orwell, Politics and the English Language.

With this post, I’ll conclude analysis of Obama’s second Inaugural speech (the first post is here) – just in time for the SOTU!

Obama’s second inaugural speech falls naturally into four parts. The previous post covered Parts I and II; this will cover Parts III and IV. Part I deployed a dense network of allusions to the framers and key documents from American history to demonstrate the essential continuity between Obama and former Presidents (cf. Matthew 5:17) and to justify Obama’s right to speak for the country as a whole, and for the American enterprise. In Part II, Obama began to do so, pleading for unity, and concluding: "[W]e are made for this moment and we will seize it, so long as we seize it together."

In Part III, Obama lightly sketches some policy outcomes for his unity-based approach. In Part IV, Obama gives his view of what unifies the body politic. As we shall see, Parts III and IV comprise an uneasy mixture of populism and neo-liberalism. And in at least one essential aspect, Part IV contradicts Part I.

Just as in the previous post, I’m color-coding the speech according to the following table:



Secular religion

A mish-mash of phrases from the Framer’s, Lincoln and MLK echoes, and so forth


Bathos is an abrupt transition in style from the exalted to the commonplace

Neo-liberal catchphrase

“Free market,” “innovation,” “hard choices” etc.


“Our most vulnerable citizens”

Bipartisan shibboleth

“The troops,” for example

Dead metaphors/cliche

“Ring the changes on,” “take up the cudgel for,” “toe the line,” “ride roughshod over,” etc. (Orwell)

Sheer nonsense

Word salad

Falsehood or truthiness

A terminological inexactitude


Lawyerly parsing and weasel wording


“Ladies and gentleman,” and so forth.

Part III: Plea for unity, future

Part II begins and ends with the word “together.” Part III loosely and lightly sketches – and when I use the word “sketch” I definitely mean to imply “sketchy” – some values and policy proposals for what “we,” “together,” might do. While the values are on the populist side, the policy proposals are on the neo-liberal side. Unlike Parts I and II, Part III is not intricately patterned: Its rhetorical device is congeries (“piling up”). In its populist aspect, it piles up shout-outs to issues (“climate change”) and constituencies (“middle class”); in its neo-liberal aspect, it piles up catch-phrases and dog whistles (“hard choices”). In terms of partisan politics, it takes a few jabs at Republican randroidism (when some might feel that a full-throated denunciation is more than called for.) And then there’s foreign policy, because the empire. Throughout, the word to keep in mind is shibboleth. I’ve called the shibboleths tosses to left Democrats “red tofu,” because of course nobody ever tosses them meat!

For we, the people 1 , understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many 2 barely make it.


We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders 3 of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person 4 can find independence and pride in their work, when the wages of honest labor will liberate families from the brink 5 of hardship. 6

OBAMA: We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed 7 as anybody else because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.


We understand that outworn (ph) programs are inadequate to the needs of our time 8 . So we must harness new ideas and technology 9 to remake our government 10 , revamp our tax code, reform our schools 11 , and empower our citizens with the skills 12 they need to work hard or learn more, reach higher.

But while the means will change, our purpose endures. A nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American, that is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.

We, the people, still 13 believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity 14 . We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.15


But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for t he generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future 16 .


For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss 17 or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative .

OBAMA: They strengthen us.


They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great 18 .


We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change 19 , knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.


Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But American cannot resist this transition. We must lead it.


We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries. We must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure, our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.

OBAMA: We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.


Our brave men and women in uniform tempered by the flames of battle are unmatched in skill and courage.


Our citizens seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty. The knowledge of their sacrifice will keep us forever vigilant against those who would do us harm. But we are also heirs to those who won the peace, and not just the war. Who turn sworn enemies into the surest of friends. And we must carry those lessons into this time as well. We will defend our people, and uphold our values through strength of arms, and the rule of law . 20

We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully. Not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.


OBAMA: America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe. And we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad. For no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation. We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice.

OBAMA: Not out of mere charity 21 , but because peace in our time 22 requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes; tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice. We the people declare today that the most evident of truth that all of us are created equal 23 — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall 24 ; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great mall 27 , to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King 28 proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.


Notes to Part III

  1. Constitution of the United States, Preamble: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…”

  2. “Shrinking few… growing many.” Thank you, Occupy!

  3. Cf. Carl Sandburg, “[The] Chicago [Way?],” “City of the Big Shoulders.”

  4. “Every person” should read “every person, within the constraint of an 8% NAIRU.”

  5. With “brink,” Obama again uses lawyerly parsing to minimize government’s potential role.

  6. Nonsense: How does one “liberate” from a “brink”?

  7. The “opportunity society.”

  8. Which “outworn programs,” exactly? The U.S. Post Office? Medicare? Social Security?

  9. Which “new ideas and technology,” exactly? Hidden fees to rentiers?

  10. “Remake government? Why not try proper staffing levels?

  11. “Reform our schools” through charters?

  12. “Empower our citizens with skills” by making them debt slaves?

  13. “Still”? Is there some reason they might not?

  14. “Basic” is lawyerly parsing, minimizing government’s role.

  15. “Hard choices” is a euphemism for austerity. The really hard choice on health care would be single payer. The really hard choice on the deficit would be admitting that solvency is not an issue for a sovereign government.

  16. Nonsense: Last I checked, the “generation” that built this country lived in the 1700s. And which generation is it that “will build” this country? Children? Teenagers? Twenty-somethings? All generations? Generations yet unborn?

  17. If you’ve got a union, you don’t “face a job loss” “at any time.”

  18. “Red tofu” for left Democrats; refighting campaign 2012.

  19. “Red tofu” for left Democrats.

  20. “Rule of law”? Obama’s mortage settlement “set a price for forgeries and fabricating documents. It’s $2000 per loan.”

  21. Cf. Lincoln, Second Inaugural, 1865: “With malice toward none, with charity for all..” And surely, to a professed Christian, charity is not “mere”?

  22. Cf. Neville Chamberlain, 1938: "My good friends this is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honor. I believe it is peace in our time."

  23. The Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….”

  24. “Red tofu,” though it’s good to hear the names, and especially Selma and Stonewall together, though oddly, or not, not Flint.

  25. “Footprints” is nonsense, at least after the National Park Service resods everything. Perhaps “footsteps” was meant? Or perhaps Favreau is vaguely echoing Longfellow—or Carolyn Joyce Carty.

  26. The “preacher” is Martin Luther King; and the last thing MLK would have wanted on the holiday named for him is being dubbed a “King”, even by America’s first black President, and as a play on words.

PART IV: Call for action

Part IV, like Part II, is a congeries. The populist shout-outs to constituencies (“gay brothers and sisters”) continue to pile up, but both populist issues and neo-liberal catchphrases (mostly) disappear, to be replaced by a not even vaguely adumbrated trope of a “journey” – beginning, destination, and route all carefully unspecified, but to be undertaken by “our generation.” (Which is odd, because Obama’s a boomer, even if David Brooks doesn’t think so.) However, the ending is remarkable: Obama tells an outrageous whopper about his own oath of office.

It is now our generation’s 1 task to carry on what those pioneers began, for our journey Is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters 2 can earn a living equal to their efforts.


Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters 3 are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal 4 , then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.


Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote 5 .


Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants 6 who still 7 see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country 8 .


OBAMA: Our journey is not complete until all our children 9 , from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown 10 , know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.

OBAMA: That is our generation’s task, to make these works, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness 11 real for every American 12 .

Being true to our founding documents 13 does not require us to agree on every contour of life 14 . It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise 15 path to happiness.

Progress does not compel us to settle century’s long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.


For now, decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate 16 .


We must act. We must act knowing that our work will be imperfect (ph). We must act knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare 17 Philadelphia hall.

OBAMA: My fellow Americans, the oath I have sworn before you today 18 , like the one recited 19 by others who serve in this Capitol, was a n oath to God 20 and country, not party or faction.

And we 21 must faithfully execute 22 that pledge during the duration of our service. But the words I spoke today are not so different from the oath that is taken each time a soldier 23 signs up for duty, or an immigrant realizes her dream. My oath is not so different from the pledge we all make to the flag 24 that waves above and that fills our hearts with pride. They are the words of citizens, and they represent our greatest hope. You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time, not only with the votes we cast, but the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideas.


Let each of us now embrace with solemn duty , and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.

Thank you.

God bless you.

And may He forever bless these United States of America.

Notes to Part IV

  1. John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961: “…the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans….”

  2. Red tofu.

  3. Red tofu.

  4. The Declaration of Independence.

  5. The main issues with voting are not waiting in line, but polling place Photo ID restrictions, and election theft.

  6. Red tofu.

  7. Still”? Is there some reason they might not?

  8. Bright” “students and engineers” are not available in the United States? Perhaps among the unemployed, even if they are not necessarily “young?”

  9. Red tofu.

  10. Red tofu, and a slap at gun culture.

  11. The Declaration of Independence: “… endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness….”

  12. Make these works… real” is nonsense.

  13. True to our founding documents” in nonsense. One can be true to the principles expressed in a document, or to the meaning of a document, but the only sorts of people who could be possibly be said to be “true” to documents as such would be archivists or restorers.

  14. Jack Kerouc, Belief & Technique for Modern Prose : “20. Believe in the holy contour of life.”

  15. Precise” is lawyerly parsing that adds no value. Omit needless words.

  16. Red tofu, and a not-so-veiled assault on Congressional Republicans.

  17. Presumably not “extra,” as in “spare roon.”

  18. A lie: Obama took the oath in private the previous day.

  19. If one tends to keep on oath, one “takes” it. Otherwise, one “recites” it.

  20. A lie: The Presidential oath is not to God. Article II, Section 1: “Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation:–"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." No mention of God whatever. A remarkable mistake, if mistake it be, for a Constitutional scholar.

  21. The royal “we”?

  22. Faithfully execute”: See note 20.

  23. Not so different” is a lie, and not mere lawyerly parsing. Here is the soldier’s oath (10 U.S.C. § 502): ““I, XXXXXXXXXX, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.” First, the President’s oath is written into the text of the Constitution (note 20); the soldier’s oath is a statute. Second, by definition there is no “officer appointed over” Obama (unless we admit the ludicrous spectacle of Obama, in his capacity as Commander in Chief, giving himself orders in his capacity as a soldier. Third, the responsibilities the soldier are limited in scope: “Against all enemies.” The responsibilities of a President are not so limited. Finally, the soldiers oath mentions God, and the Presidential oath does not. (See here and here for a discussion of “Obama’s militarized vision of civil society-as-unit” in last year’s SOTU.)

  24. Not so different” is again a lie. Here is the text of the Pledge of Allegiance, also from statute (4 USC § 4): “I pledge Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.” I don’t see any mention of the Constitution there, do you?


So, now to the payoff from all that coloring. Here’s a miniature image of the speech, which shows the distributions of the color-coded categories. Part I is on the left, Parts II and III are in the middle, and Part IV is on the right.

As you can see, taking the accuracy of my coloring as a given:

  • Secular religion is concentrated in part one part one;
  • Populism and neoliberalism mark parts two and three
  • Falsehoods are concentrated in part four.

Dead metaphors, bipartisan shibboleths, and bathos are evenly distributed throughout; equivocation is evenly distributed as well, but occurs mostly when the role of government is discussed. It will be interesting to see if the same categories could be used to code tomorrow’s SOTU and, if so, how the codign will be distributed.

First, let’s look at the congeries of populist and neo-liberal shibboleths in Parts III and IV. We don’t see random intermingling of the two categories: Rather, we see alternating stretches of populist green and neo-liberal yellow. We might also recall that while the populist content is shout-outs to constituencies (“middle class!”) and causes (“climate change!”), the neo-liberal content is programmatic (“hard choices”). This suggests a certain lack of integration in Obama’s views; a certain fragility to his populism. Will left Democrats be satisfied with shout-outs? Has Obama signaled his program choices? Time will tell; or may perhaps have already told.

While Parts II and III show the uneasy integration of populism and neo-liberalism, Parts I and IV are in outright contradiction. Here is why.

In Part IV, Obama is at great pains to claim that the oaths that he, as President, soldiers, and citizens take are “not so different.” As we see in notes 20 through 24, this claim is false, as a moment’s thought will show: Surely nobody other than Obama would claim with a straight face that a child reciting the Pledge of Pledge of Allegiance and a President taking the oath of office are “not so different” — unless Obama believes that the “connective tissue” of the body politic is oath-taking. Of course, that’s doubly absurd, since (a) that would be f… eudalism, and (b) Obama retroactively legalized fraud and forgery on a gross scale with this Mortgage Settlement, and corporate felonies with FISA reform, and Jeebus, sh*t like that’s got to break some oath or other, right?*

Here’s what Federalist #17 has to say about oaths, feudalism, and fealty:

Though the ancient feudal systems were not, strictly speaking, confederacies, yet they partook of the nature of that species of association. There was a common head, chieftain, or sovereign, whose authority extended over the whole nation; and a number of subordinate vassals, or feudatories, who had large portions of land allotted to them, and numerous trains of INFERIOR vassals or retainers, who occupied and cultivated that land upon the tenure of fealty or obedience, to the persons of whom they held it. Each principal vassal was a kind of sovereign, within his particular demesnes. The consequences of this situation were a continual opposition to authority of the sovereign, and frequent wars between the great barons or chief feudatories themselves. The power of the head of the nation was commonly too weak, either to preserve the public peace, or to protect the people against the oppressions of their immediate lords. This period of European affairs is emphatically styled by historians, the times of feudal anarchy.

Regardless of the merits of Publius’s potted history, and regardless of whether Obama’s vision of a society where unity is achieved through oath-taking leads to warlordism and anarchy, it is clear that Obama’s vision is not the Framer’s vision. Hence Part IV directly contradicts Part I.

It’s quite late, and if I may briefly whine, I destroyed yesterday’s version of this piece in a computer disaster, so my reasoning may not be as crisp as it should be. That said, considered as a speech, Obama’s Second Inaugural is indeed a prefabricated henhouse: Cliche-ridden, prolix, analytically sloppy, internally contradictory in multiple ways, and liable at best to be a cynical ploy in the legacy parties’ ongoing destruction of the New Deal.

However, considered as a harbinger of a change in the Constitutional order, Obama’s Second Inaugural is no chicken house at all. Perhaps it’s a castle. Or a panopticon. Or a server farm. Or an agora. Or un bordel. Or some combination! Because, again, Obama’s views on how oaths bind society seem quite radical, remarkable, and unprecedented to me. “Change” is indeed coming, although not the sort that some of us hoped to see, and not even the sort many of us have been so justly cynical about.

NOTE * See here and here for Obama’s last SOTU, where he takes the view that a “warrior ethos” — i.e., authoritarian followership — should permeate civil society.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Guest Post on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. jake chase

    Nicely done. It took serious effort to wade through and catagorize all this bullshit, certainly more effort than two or three dozen speech writers put into it.

    What is most amazing is that millions and millions of people will sit through this drivel nodding their heads. Our country is three hundred million cows walking up a gangplank at a Kansas City meat plant.

  2. Not Cornell West

    No, “I am the black mascot of Wall St., a Rockefeller republican in black face or head of America’s killing machine and proud of it.”?

  3. Private Benjamin

    Nicely done! Thank you! I love the way you bring it all together at the end and how the colors function as a graphic that give the big picture of the speech’s structure.

    And I think your analogy to feudalism is delightful, but surely that’s a case of unintended consequences arising from the chaotic patchwork of catch phrases and not the unconscious revelation of deliberate policy?

  4. anyone

    Excellent work! I wonder if they have software that churns this crap out now? Select from some general themes, tone, and occasion, and voila! Instant automated bullshit! Add some voice software and the whole damn thing can be “droned” to the sheeple. Kind of fitting, given our current situation.

    1. jrs

      Ok, I’d like 50% MLK, 20% Jesus, 10% the Dali Lama, and 20% Milton Friedman. Then hit the “create speech” button.

  5. Embrace my solemn redeye

    Basic. Yes, yes, Democrats love this weasel word. It plays a very specific role in the Big Dem Lie. Dems use it to obscure the duties of the state. Actually,
    security and dignity are not neoliberal words but legal terms appropriated from customary and conventional human rights law that the government is trying to evade.

    The left-wing roach motel called Progressive Democrats of America does it too when they cite “basic” human rights. There’s no such thing. There are core human rights, including several international standards that we flout, like the Torture Convention, the UDHR, and the CCPR, or just ignore, like the conventions on genocide and enforced disappearance, and the Convention to End Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). “Basic” human rights means shit.

    So in the case of CEDAW, for instance, “basic” dignity for women means that party dupes argue endlessly about one word in one clause of Article 16 bearing on parents’ right to choose the number and spacing of their offspring (Choice! Life! Choice! Life!) while intently ignoring the comprehensive world standard.

    As in Part I of Obama’s Big Lie, the people have commitments and obligations. Fuck you, shitstain, the state has commitments and obligations. The people have human rights. We can talk about my commitments and obligations when your illegitimate basket-case state honors its commitments and obligations to the International Bill of Human Rights, the UN Charter, and jus cogens. And speaking of rule of law, tell it to the ICC prosecutor, motherfucker.

    1. cripes

      Embrace has the right attitude. No more of the mealy mouthed, librul, Obama apologetics. Providing cover for government austerity shitstains who lecture us about living on less while they shovel taxpayer blood-money into the rapacious maw of finance capital. Fuck them them and fuck Obama.

    1. ussi

      You could be anywhere. As Chris Hedges points out, Americans hate this regime as intensely as East Germans hated the Stasi.

  6. Irrumabus populi suprema lex esto

    You were somewhat remiss in not footnoting the redolent term democracy in The Commander-in-Chief’s address: “We will support democracy from Asia to Africa…”

    It clearly evokes the historic words of George W. Bush,


  7. Laughing_Fascist


    Your work in these postings is fantastic. The vast emptiness of Obama’s rhetoric is still shocking even after years of O flooding the airwaves with vast empty rhetoric.

    “Obama’s views on how oaths bind society seem quite radical…unprecedented”

    I don’t think Obama has any views on oaths. He is just reading a speech written by a pro speech writer. There may have been a time long ago when a president would have stopped during his review of a proposed speech and requested to know more about about what the fuck the speech writer is trying to say about oaths. Maybe some presidents thought oaths were a serious matter. In Obama’s case taking an oath is formality nothing more. It sounded good on first reading so he went with it.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      No, I don’t think Favreau would be up to that; I think this is something Obama actually believes in (and maybe came to this belief only during his Presidency). See the links to his SOTU of last year in the NOTE; the continuities are suggestive.

      1. Laughing_Fascist

        Lambert you are attributing something to Obama that he does not give a shit about.

        First lets take this quote from the speech:

        “For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial…”

        The take away from this quote is that we have a speaker who gives a shit about nothing in particular. Otherwise why would he engage in verbal jacking off during an event as important as an inaugural?

        Based on that quote alone, one should exercise caution when it comes to attributing substantive thoughts or concern for policy when looking at O’s speeches. He has no vision, just rhetoric and a teleprompter. If he had vision his inaugural would be bursting with it.

        On to the question of Obama having unusual (or any type of) beliefs about oaths. In Obama’s first inaugural, he mentioned the word “oath” only two times and in a very offhand way:

        “Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms.”

        And inlast year’s SOTU, he never mentioned the word oath.

        And I seriously doubt he researched the oath of a soldier or the Federalist #17 or feudalism and fealty the way you did here.

        So when he says the oaths he and soldiers take (and average folks who pledge to the flag) are the same, its just the standard rhetorical device that it seems. Nothing more than that.

        Why am I so sure? Obama has no vision or plan. Or idea about the glue (oaths) that holds or should hold American society together. Your intense analysis of this year’s inaugural proved it.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          Check the notes. The vision that Obama presents in last year’s SOTU (not the inaugural) is a society of authoritarian followers. That’s entirely consistent with the focus on paths in this year’s Inaugural.

          I think you are underestimating him, and that’s dangerous. Just because his heart is empty and his words vacuous does not mean that his grasp of power is not sure.

        2. jrs

          The quote you gave is interesting:

          “For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial…”

          WTF is the dude even talking about, I mean it’s supposed to be some code to refer to something (maybe evil republicans) but it’s far to abstract to really mean anything.

          1. keepon

            WHY must we settle for “imperfect, or partial?” Where’s the hope in setting such a low bar? You are sandbagging us at every turn.

            Open your eyes. Hear the people. What a wealth of ideas and knowledge that, by choice, YOU REFUSE to tap into in allegiance to cronyism. WE have FAMILIES and CHILDREN a Nation to repair and protect here Mr. President. IMPERFECT is not an option. PARTIAL is not an option.

            The solutions are clear. LISTEN, LEAD, or get out of our way!

    2. Button Man in Chief

      The real oath Obama took was to make sure Jeffrey Castelli, Betnie Medero, Ralph Russomando and those 20 dipshit NOCs got to skip out on their 5-7 year convictions for the kidnapping and torture of Abu Omar. And that oath he takes very seriously, or else Malia winds up in the underground bunker with the hypnotized lone nut.

  8. Ken Ward

    I find it selfish on the part of US presidents to call for God’s blessing just for their own country. It is so unfair for us poor souls who live in a different ‘corner’ of the globe. (It’s in fact easier to find corners in triangles and rectangles than in globes.) Since the US remains ‘the anchor of strong alliances’ in every corner, couldn’t Obama beseech the Deity just once to offer His blessings to us corner outliers too? It would surely further strengthen the already strong alliances. On another point, just when I thought ‘our journey’ might eventually ‘be complete’ after doing this, that and the other thing, Obama slips in the caveat that, though we must act, we know our action will be ‘imperfect’. Looks like our journey will never be complete, damn it!

  9. Jackrabbit

    For me, this is the heart of the speech, and it comes, appropriately, in the middle:

    For we, the people understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it….*… We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.

    NB: This has historical echos in MLK’s speech where he took American to task for not being true to it’s creed.

    So what does Obama believe is required to ensure that we are “true to our creed” in light of the great inequality that has arisen in America? The answer lies in the passage that comes between these two statements (where I have placed a ‘*’):

    * We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work, when the wages of honest labor will liberate families from the brink of hardship.

    ‘The creed’ obligates the government to take basic steps to correct capitalist failings by spurring job creation. This sets a rather low bar for government, and asks very very little of “the very few”.

    Before and after this ‘reality check’ in the speech Obama talks about meeting historical and future challenges. He does so in a rousing progressive tone but he makes no commitment or promise that government can help.


    This sets the stage for the State of the Union speech that will focus on jobs and the economy.

    I’m expecting the SOTU to call for providing tax incentives and other ‘gives’ to business for hiring workers. That might include a tax holiday for repatriating overseas profits.

      1. Jackrabbit

        I imagine that this is about as definitive as Obama will get on the subject of wealth inequality.

        And whatever the magnitude, I think the result will be as much a ‘give’ to the wealthy as it is a help to the unemployed.

    1. jrs

      “when the wages of honest labor will liberate families from the brink of hardship”

      They dont’ even have to be good enough to prevent hardship, much less to ensure a good living, just to liberate from the brink of or somethiing. No union would ever bargain that way “we want wages enough to liberate us from the brink of hardship”

    2. Jackrabbit

      I’d say that Obama evolved from “you didn’t build that” to “beggars can’t be choosers” but I’m quite sure that the former was merely election year rhetoric.

  10. jrs

    Good, but it kind of misses the point, the problem isn’t that there is really anything wrong with the ideals expressed in Obama’s speeches. It just that Obama’s speeches have no correspondence whatsoever to reality.

  11. Hugh

    “We will defend our people, and uphold our values through strength of arms, and the rule of law.”

    That is an amazing tell. I kept wondering as I read this speech who this “we” was. Obama keeps jumping from including himself in this we to acting like they are somebody different. But more than this, that “through strength of arms” is an unnecessary and disturbing intrusion. Favreau not only adds in the disconnect between “we” and “our people” but privileges “strength of arms” before the rule of law.

    I think the SOTU will just be a longer form of this tangle of cheap quotes and lying promises.

  12. Rich R

    Rhetoric has become an instrument of the demagogue….”say what you mean, mean what you say”. That’s all I ask.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      If I could call shots like that, I’d be rich. That said, I’m seeing a lot more happy talk than reasons for happy talk.

      It’s like the belief of the elites in the confidence fairy is so deep that they actually think they can talk themselves into prosperity — and they think everybody else thinks like they do! If only consumers had confidence they’d spend!

      Well, no. If consumers had money they’d spend. But the economy sucks. So what do people do? Go into debt? Mortgage the house? People may be stupid, but they aren’t crazy….

  13. Lambert Strether Post author

    When thinking about how to respond to listeners who took Obama’s shout-outs seriously, I thought of this passage from Frank Herbert’s Dune:

    I could kill him, [Count Hasimir] Fenring thought—and he knew this for a truth.

    Something in his own secretive depths stayed the Count then, and he glimpsed briefly, inadequately, the advantage he held over Paul—a way of hiding from the youth, a furtiveness of person and motives that no eye could penetrate.

    And this:

    The young man focused his attention on the Count: a small man, weak-looking. The face was weaselish with overlarge dark eyes. There was gray at the temples. And his movements—he moved a hand or turned his head one way, then he spoke another way. It was difficult to follow.

    I don’t think anybody’s ever compared Obama to Count Hasimir Fenring before! I seem to have taken a real dislike to the man….

  14. JTFaraday

    “Rather, we see alternating stretches of populist green and neo-liberal yellow.”

    Of course we do. This is “we will capture your every idea, your every moral sentiment– and, because you probably weren’t all that pure to begin with– we will readily weaponize them and turn them against you.”

Comments are closed.