Jeff Weintraub on Obama and the civic-republican tradition

How Obama has transformed progressive rhetoric.

With Jeff Weintraub’s kind permission, I’m posting below the full text of an email he sent me in response to my first thoughts on the inaugural address. Alert readers will detect the origins of my second post on the topic, which identified “civic republicanism” as the central theme of the address and Obama’s indirect quotation of Tom Paine.


I just read your thoughts on Obama’s Inaugural Address, and (as usual) I found them perceptive and largely on-target. I think we agree that it was not one of his soaring speeches (and was not designed to contain a lot of applause lines), but it was eloquent in a sober and austere way. I felt a kind of tension there as I listened to it, which made parts of the speech seem almost odd to me, and perhaps that was due in part to a characteristic of the speech that I think you noted correctly–that is, in some ways it was “a text for the eye more than the ear.” But that’s only part of the reason, because when I read the text my overall impressions were not that different from what they were when I heard it.

For my part, when my wife and I watched the inauguration on TV, I found myself overcome with emotion to an extent that genuinely surprised me. Even the invocation by Pastor Rick Warren (!), who is hardly one of my favorite people, and which had a lot more Jesus in it than it should have, moved me almost to tears. Obama’s speech, too. Even Joe the Biden’s oath of office (which Justice Stevens, unlike Chief Justice Roberts, did not mess up). I guess when certain grand political rituals coincide with a historic occasion like this, the effect can be awe-inspiring.

I’m putting off writing down my own thoughts about the speech for my blog (and if I do post them at all, they’ll be briefer and less substantial than yours were). But among other things, this speech once more reinforced an impression that struck me very early and very forcibly about Obama. You remark that a major theme of the speech has to do with the inextricable connection between freedom and responsibility (even “duties”).

Insofar as a single dominant theme stands out in my memory, it was the responsibility of individual Americans to do their part in rebuilding the nation and the world.

This is right. One way to flesh this out, I think, is to frame it in a way that I did last January and which my friend Andy Markovits and I spelled out more fully in May …

[….] People often talk about Obama’s soaring rhetoric, but what’s the content of that rhetoric? To put it in terms that the Founders would have understood immediately, Obama has made civic patriotism and republican virtue central to the message of his whole campaign. He has consistently championed a politics of solidarity, active citizenship, national community, and the common good. Like Lincoln, Obama portrays the United States as a nation defined by certain constitutive ideals and charged with the project of imperfectly but continually striving to achieve, extend, and enrich these ideals in concrete ways (“in order to form a more perfect union”). Furthermore, Obama affirms and celebrates “the promise of America” (adding that “I know the promise of America because I have lived it”), while insisting that to fulfill that promise requires constant effort, civic engagement, shared sacrifices, and conflict as well as cooperation.

The most crucial requirement (“the great need of the hour,” in a formulation borrowed from Martin Luther King) is active moral and political solidarity — not only to empower oppressed and underprivileged groups, but to bind together and revitalize a more comprehensive national community. [….]

That evocation of solidarity and responsibility conjoined with republican liberty, of the need to revitalize the political community (not as an alternative to government action, but as a necessary complement to it), and of a politics of the common good runs through his Inaugural speech, too–in a sober and serious tone, as I said. These themes tie together many of the specific passages you picked out.

And there’s even an explicit invocation of virtue, which is more dicey nowadays. In fact, “hope and virtue” come together in the concluding paragraph.

=> Of course, this talk of “virtue” is introduced and legitimized by quoting it from none other than the Alpha Founder George Washington. But did you notice something interesting about historical tidbit?

The Washington-related passage in Obama’s second-to-last paragraph referred to the terrible winter of 1776, when Washington’s consistently-beaten army had retreated to Valley Forge and seemed about to melt away. Obama’s speech says …

At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: “Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

Now, what struck me immediately is that those quoted words are Thomas Paine’s. They come from Paine’s pamphlet “The American Crisis” (printed December 23, 1776), which begins with that well-known passage …

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. [Etc.]

According the standard historical account (or legend) I remember learning in my youth, Paine actually wrote that tract sitting in Washington’s camp at Valley Forge, and Washington really did have it read aloud to inspire the troops.

(Did it actually happen that way? I’m not sure, but it’s plausible, and it certainly could have happened that way. Perhaps a historian could confirm it. But that’s neither here nor there. Whether or not Washington actually had Paine’s tract read out to the troops, they’re the sort of thing he would have had proclaimed.)

Still, it’s a pity that poor old Tom Paine couldn’t get some recognition in Obama’s inaugural speech. (Reagan quoted him explicitly, you will recall.) Paine’s revolutionary pamphlets were phenomenal best-sellers at the time, of course. And when Paine’s audience read those words, they knew exactly what “virtue” meant in that context–that is, citizen virtue. That’s what we need, for sure (among other things).

Well, now we have to hope for the best.


Two quibbles on secondary points:

1. As noted in an update to my earlier post, the story that Paine’s words were written at Valley Forge can’t be true; they were published the previous winter. It’s still possible that Washington ordered them read at Valley Forge.

2. I find “too much Jesus” – a reaction I’ve encountered from others – a surprising response to Warren’s invocation. Mine was just the opposite. Warren quoted Jesus (whom he referred to first by his Hebrew name, Yeshua) as I might quote Socrates: that is, as a human teacher to whom Warren is personally indebted for various insights. That’s a long way from identifying Jesus as the Messiah, let alone worshipping Jesus as God.

Warren recited the Lord’s Prayer, but didn’t call it that; stripped of the title, it’s recognizably (even in English translated from Greek) a very nice but fairly conventional piece of Hebrew religious poetry, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Book of Psalms or the Saturday-morning synagogue service.

So while atheists and practitioners of non-Abrahamic religions might reasonably have felt left out, Warren’s prayer wasn’t really a specifically Christian one, let alone an Evangelical one.

And except for the mention of Jesus, the rest of the invocation could have been given just as well by a mainstream liberal Protestant minister, or a liberal rabbi. If Obama-ism has no greater triumph than persuading a mega-church entrepreneur to give such an ecumenical prayer, then I say, on behalf of my fellow fighters against superstition and bigotry, dayyenu! It is sufficient unto us.

Update Just in case you had any doubt, former Maryland Governor Bob Erlich wants to remind you that contemporary Republicans are not civic republicans. Oh, and they’re a little bit literacy-challenged, as well.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: