Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends -- hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old.
Not earthshaking rhetoric, but it implies, correctly I think, that not only President Bush has lost his way here. We say goodbye to a President who told us he's "doing everything he can" about everything he couldnt, and that our job was, primarily, to shop. What ideals shoud we expect from an incoming African American Prez, eager to restore virtuous principles? What American ideals are we conditioned to hear, orated o'er the Mall? How you order things says alot. Justice? Equality? Tolerance? Togetherness? Freedom? Oh Gawwddd almighty, Le-eehht Freedom Ring?!?! Obama touched on all that yesterday, but when he reached into our past to pluck one guiding virtue above all others, it's worth noting he led with "hard work".
First, the political notion that work (as opposed to justice or station) is the prime antecedent of prosperity, resonates deeply with a large segment of Americans, particularly conservatives. Second, in light of the lingering Wall Street debacle, Obama's caveat that the work is "hard" breaks sharply from a corporate narcissism predicated on "easy money" to the detriment of honest production and old fashioned value. Third, hard work is a call to tangible action - all after are pleas to the heart. The middle cuplets are mundane, and the last mere lip service to right wing jingoism. But the part about honest, hard work is embedded with a barb - aimed at more than the outgoing administration.
A generation ago, Jimmy Carter talked about an American malaise. The reviews were not kind, and it was a domestic political blunder, but in a sweeping, global sense, Carter was right. He understood, better than most at the time, how inexorably the rest of the world was developing, and that cherished American paradigms - about a lot of things - would need to eventually shift in order for us to stay prosperous and strong. Instead, we elected John Wayne, blamed government for our ills and unleashed American business for a nice little run. Just ask Charles Keating. President Reagan went about the honest hard work of diverting arms to Iran, sidling up to Saddam Hussein and vetoing an anti-apartheid resolution against South Africa. Cheating on taxes became something of an entitlement, spurred on by an enormously popular president's open disdain for all things federal.
When the money ran out, we elected Clinton, who held those who held government in contempt - in contempt. Then Bush, true to form, gained traction by holding Clinton's excesses up for scorn. Another way to look at it, though, is that we've elected disparate ideologues with a common disdain for the 19th century American ideal of honest, hard work. Some will say that's unfair to Reagan, who forcefully espoused industry, but it fits him like a glove on taxes, regulation and worker's rights. To the extent he was personally honest, his opportunistic 'disciples' were not. That contempt for honest hard work and veneration of unsustainably easy money was equally evident in the Clinton and W eras.
Thirty years after impolitic Carter, the peanut farmer turned nuclear engineer, derived what was most wrong with America, we may have finally elected a more electric, politically plugged in pragmatist who can actually do something about it.