Sentencing Obama

The public loved his inaugural address. James had it right: the man is all about winning, not about flattering his own vanity.

More than four out of five voters rated the President’s (first) Inaugural Address excellent (46%) or good (35%). That means he’s reaching deep, deep into Red territory.

And very, very few people really disliked it: combined “poor” and “terrible” responses came to 3%. Just Obama’s luck that those 3% seem to be TV talking heads, columnists, or bloggers.

It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but the only 62% gave Bush II inaugural were “excellent” (25%) or “good” (37%) ratings: about 3/5 instead of 4/5 on the positive side. Bush racked up a total of 11% “poor” (7%) or “terrible” (4%).

Ed Kilgore has the explanation: Obama has a solid grasp of “value-based messaging.”

We know that Barack Obama is capable of giving a rousing, crowd-pleasing speech. If he did not do so Tuesday, perhaps that was because he did not intend to do so: that his goal was to appeal to those who had not come to cheer him. Obama’s oratory, like his other qualities, is his servant, not his master. He has his full share of self-esteem, but will not sacrifice his public purposes to his vanity, not even his literary vanity.

There’s been lots of hot air wasted on the question whether Obama plans to be a “transformative” President or whether he instead plans to use all the legitimate levers a President has to hand in order to get his programs through. Talk about a false alternative! Obama plans to be transformative by winning, and to win in part by appealing to the public hunger for a transformation away from politics driven by bribery and fear and cloaked in secrecy.

The great weakenss of the civic republicans, and of their post-1989 heirs in Eastern Europe, was to focus on the nobility of politics to the exclusion of the sausage-making. As George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall said about the goo-goo reformers of his own day, “They want to take the politics out of politics”: and substitute for it high-minded discourse. That’s not a mistake a veteran of Chicago politics &#8212 even a reformer from a reform ward &#8212 is ever likely to make.

Politicians have to lead, but (and this is the great lesson of Daleyism) politicians in office have to deliver. When John Lindsay offered a flowery prose-poem about the role of the mayor as the leader of the city, the elder Daley replied, “Da job a’ da mare is ta pick up da garbage.”

Machiavelli’s hero was the good man who has “learned to be able not to be [merely] good.” I think Obama fits that bill. In this space two days ago, James Wimberley “sentenced” Barack Obama, in Thoreau’s sense of that word: he spoke the essential true sentence about him. It’s highlighted below.

Like Lincoln’s First Inaugural, the speech was an appeal to all Americans for unity in crisis; an appeal for which both new Presidents were prepared to renounce all triumphalism and disappoint their followers. But it’s unity behind causes as they framed them. The olive branch was carried in a mailed fist.

This was not softness on Lincoln’s part; and neither is it in Obama’s. His enemies should understand that this man will stop at nothing to carry out his promises.

[Thoreau quotation at the jump.]

From Henry David Thoreau, Slavery in Massachusetts:

Among human beings, the judge whose words seal the fate of a man furthest into eternity is not he who merely pronounces the verdict of the law, but he, whoever he may be, who, from a love of truth, and unprejudiced by any custom or enactment of men, utters a true opinion or sentence concerning him. He it is that sentences him. Whoever can discern truth has received his commission from a higher source than the chiefest justice in the world who can discern only law.

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: