People have asked why––after all the good advice I gave Barack Obama during the campaign––I did not go to Washington this week for his presidential inauguration.
After all, this was an event you didn’t have to sneak in to. All you had to do was pass through a dozen security checkpoints, escape the wary eye of 47,000 cops, and stand in the cold for five hours to join millions of your fellow citizens on the Capitol Mall for the historic swearing in. Or, you could watch it on TV. Call me stupid, but I chose the latter.
While invitations to the many private parties surrounding the event did not exactly pour in (Oprah, do you need my new address?) there were more than a dozen inaugural galas to attend, at least two of which came without a price for admission. I was tempted by a story in the New York Times about a “Politically Correct” hotel package the Ritz Carlton was offering for only $50,000. Four days in a luxury suite, a 24-hour Hummer limousine to get around town, two tickets to the inauguration, the parade and a ball, plus a free tuxedo, party gown and souvenir jewelry.
Before I could get in my reservation, however, my wife reminded me we’re saving up to fix the garage door. Sure, I could have gone to Washington to celebrate the new administration. But to what end? The fun part of politics is over. The campaign with all its hoopla has ended. Now President Obama must govern – and I have to get back to fixing the garage door and other broken elements in my own little economic mini-crisis.
To what end?
I watched the inauguration on TV with mixed emotions: Pride that America this time seems to have chosen the right man; admiration for how Obama handled himself on his first day; and a hard-to-shake feeling that the real change Obama brings to Washington will be a sober realization of how bad things have actually gotten.
Allow me a moment to question all the hope floating around in America today. In spite of all the gushy songs on the HBO “We Are One” concert, we are not going to sing our way to prosperity. You can buy all the Obama swag you want on QVC, but that won’t jump start an economy that is, in effect, dead in the water; and even quick passage of Obama’s stimulus package, with its hundreds of billions of tax dollars for roads, bridges, schools, electrical grids and digital highways, comes with no guarantee it will work.
Despite many inspiring passages, delivered with Obama’s signature eloquence, I couldn’t help but wonder as I listened what would happen Wednesday morning. Would some banker wake up and decide to start making loans again? Did anyone go out and buy a new car? Did the stock market soar? (No, it dropped 150 points before he even started speaking, and another 170 as soon as he finished.) In this new era of responsibility, who goes first? The government or the people.
A Troubled Nation
To his credit, Obama laid out the problem clearly at the start of his 20-minute address. “The challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many,” he said.
“Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.”
It doesn’t get much bleaker than that. Unless you add in, as Obama did, “the false choice between our safety and our ideals . . . for expedience’s sake,” “the nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable” and “a sapping of confidence across our land.” And what he didn’t mention, the ticking time bombs in the Middle East, Pakistan and North Korea (to name a few).
“Not since 1933,” David Sanger wrote in the New York Times, “when Franklin D. Roosevelt called for a ‘restoration’ of American ethics and vigorous government action as Herbert Hoover sat and seethed, has a new president so publicly rejected the essence of his predecessor’s path.
“When Mr. Obama looked forward, however, he was far less specific about how he would combine his lofty vision and his passion for pragmatism into urgently needed solutions,” he added.
For all these ills, Obama promised that a return to America’s core values of hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism would lead us to a better tomorrow. It’s hard to believe, if you put them all together, that wouldn’t be a good idea. But its not what you’d call an action plan.
Obama may declare the ground has shifted beneath my cynicism, but I didn’t hear any rumbles. It is one thing to “proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics,” quite another to make it stick in a town that thrives on them.
Begin The Beguine
I have the utmost faith that Obama will bring a new and sorely needed fresh approach to the problems in Washington, but I will not be there to chronicle it. Stump Connolly’s campaign coverage came with an expiration date of November 5, 2008, and we are well past that. It’s time to head back to Iron Mountain, as is my custom, and rest up for the 2012 race.
In politics, there are two kinds of reporters: campaign guys and government types. Campaign guys traipse around the country talking to people, read polls, listen to endless renditions of the same speech, and get a feel for the candidates and an even better feel for what’s on the minds of the voters. They write on the fly about an ever-shifting process that one day seems like a noble exercise in democracy, and the next day has all the nobility of a lingerie football game.
Government types tend to know what they are talking about. They gravitate to Washington because Washington, D.C. is where the federal government is, and they are well versed in the ins and outs of how ideas become legislation. The government they cover is a multi-faceted machine with thousands of little cogs, high level public officials and lowly bureaucrats, making decisions every day it takes an army of reporters to follow.
It’s time now to let the government types do their thing. I’m looking forward to reading their reports on how the new president is doing while I attend to the more mundane task of being a good citizen. One of 300 million.
Stump Connolly is the chief political correspondent of The Week Behind. His columns on the 2008 presidential race are collected in the new book “The Long Slog.” Part I: A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Nomination is now available on Amazon.com. Part II: Lipstick on a Pig will be released in the Spring.