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Obama's Inaugural Speech Analyzed

SIEGEL: Now, to our two regular political observers, David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Welcome to both of you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And I'd like to begin by continuing a conversation that the two of you had earlier today. You heard the Obama speech, and you heard different President Obamas emerge from that speech. David Brooks, what did you hear? You heard a pragmatist.

BROOKS: Yeah, well, I remember interviewing him a couple of years ago, walking out thinking, you know, he agrees with everything I think. And I'm sure E.J. could have had the same reaction. And after the speech today I went on the Web site of the New Republic, a liberal magazine, and I found some pieces that were very laudatory and some that were very negative. Then I went to the National Review site, a very conservative magazine, and some pieces loved the speech, thought it was one of the greatest speeches ever. Some thought it was flat. So everyone gets to have their own private Obama. And my Obama - the Obama I thought I heard was one who had a wintry version of what's wrong with America, which is, we have been making tough choices. We've been irresponsible. And he struck that theme and said it's time to put away childish things. And to me, that's a renunciation of a whole political era - an era of old debates, of big government vs. small government, and really the emergence of what he hopes is a post-baby-boomer pragmatism.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne, you heard a bit of the return of FDR in this speech.

DIONNE: I did, indeed. I was very struck by a couple of passages and how much they represented a break, yes, with stale arguments, as he put it and as David suggested, but also a break with a lot of the thinking since Ronald Reagan became president. On the economy, he actually asked the question, is the market a force for good or ill - not even a question that has come up much until, say, the last six months. And he acknowledged the market's power to generate wealth and expand freedom. But he also said that without a watchful eye the market can spin out of control, and we cannot prosper if it only favors the prosperous. That's a very progressive thought, and there is clearly an indication of a new foreign policy, and I think a pretty sharp, though indirect, critique of President Bush when he said that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. He called for humility and restraint. So I think this is very much a break with the recent conservative past. Yes, there's a lot of pragmatism here, but if I may paraphrase Barry Goldwater, pragmatism in pursuit of progressive goals is no vice.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, I wonder. When you heard President Obama raise the question about the market and acknowledge its power to generate wealth, is he in that instance just communicating to conservatives, I understand your ideas? I disagree with them in the end, but I understand your ideas.

BROOKS: No, I really don't think so. I mean, we need - the market generates wealth, we need some regulatory structure to keep it under control. I think everybody on earth this side of Ayn Rand believes that. I certainly believe it. There is certainly nothing I would disagree with. I suspect if you took the Republicans on Capital Hill, with a few exceptions, none of them would disagree with that. The question is in the pragmatics and how you actually play out the regulatory structure. And on that, he really did not tie him down. One contrasting inaugural speech was Ronald Reagan's in 1981 where he said, here are three things - exact things I am going to do. Reaganism had a clearly planned out government philosophy. I don't think Barack Obama is like that. If there is an Obamaism, it's not necessarily that he has a complete vision of what he wants to do. He has a complete vision of how he wants to go about it.

SIEGEL: Mmm hmm. What about that, E.J., that there may be a style or a method more than a vision here?

DIONNE: No, well, I think there were quite a few specifics in this speech, certainly about what's in the stimulus plan, but I think it's wrong for us to try to put Obama into some old conservative-liberal argument. I think he is trying to break that mold. But I think the question is, where is he trying to move us? And I think Obama is someone who cares more about the destination than the path there. He's willing to zig a little this way and a little that way if it will get him to his end. But there was a lot of powerful talk about equality in this speech, including economic equality, and we haven't heard that in a long time. That doesn't mean that Joe the Plumber is right and that he's a socialist. He's not a socialist, but he does believe in much great social and economic equality than we've seen in a while, and I think he signaled very strongly that that's the direction in which he wants to move. He does like old values. So do I. So do most people. I think using old values on behalf of new departures is in the great tradition of American progressives.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times. Thanks to both of you once again.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.


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