Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday wrap-up: Obama’s austere rhetoric

Last year, Merriam-Webster Dictionary declared “austerity” as its Word of the Year. Apparently, “austerity” generated more than 250,000 searches on its online website, rising with coverage of the debt crisis. It can refer to extreme economy, but also to an austere manner or attitude. Whatever you think of Barack Obama’s politics when he mounts the presidential bully pit, you have to admit: his manner perfectly matches these harsh times.

His stark definition of the two, largely overlapping fiscal strategies now before Congress and his insistence that Congress’s newest members must also compromise to get things done was partisan. Yet even that was balanced by a rather nice idea: “I realize that a lot of the new members of Congress and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues. But we were each elected by some of the same Americans for some of the same reasons.”

(Nevertheless, even when he’s just being clear, his most bitter critics take offense. Here’s William Kristol’s prickly take on one unfortunate cliché in Obama’s Monday night address: “These ‘people outside of Washington’ are not little children being lectured on an obscure subject by a worldly adult.”)  

Obama’s speech didn’t alter the odds facing either side of Congress’s grinding partisan showdown. But it may be highly regarded when the history of this period is written. This doesn’t console his own supporters, and it depresses many who simply wish that he could end-run the panoply of forces aligned against him.

However, Obama’s friends—and America’s—shouldn’t lose heart. And Republicans better start preparing to take—as well as throw—hard punches. Obama will soon be as partisan as it takes to win the next election.

Imagine what Lincoln’s campaign war room must have thought of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In November 1863, the war seemed interminable, anti-war- and draft-resistance sentiments were rising in the north, and his chances for re-election were dimming in his own mind. A great audience was assembled. Yet, at the end of a puny two-minute address, all Lincoln asked for was “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Hard times do not yield smartly to clear thinking, carefully expressed. In the noise of the moment, these virtues are often overshadowed. Fortunately, however, they have been in the arena at every turn for the better in American history.

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