President Barack Obama is a beguiling but confounding figure. As he said of himself in "The Audacity of Hope," "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." It is indeed audacious that he should proclaim this consciously disingenuous attribute. And as one reads his inaugural address, it is hard not to conclude that it was crafted shrewdly to perpetuate such confusion.
Run-of-the-mill politicians try to hide their duplicity. Only the most gifted of that profession brag that they intend to confound and confuse the public. Such an effort is beyond ingenious; it is brazenly ingenuous.
And it is working. Many of my fellow conservative commentators are embarrassingly eager to search Obama's words, groveling for hopeful signs that he is not a radical intent on changing the face and nature of our republic. Some of our Tory conservatives have clung to his words ("hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old; these things are true") as evidence of a deep conservatism.
Other smitten conservative commentators take false comfort from his reference to George Washington's "small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river."
Free market conservatives point hopefully, pathetically, to the first clauses of these words he said: "Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control." That "watchful eye" he calls for may be as benign as Teddy Roosevelt's anti-monopoly policies, or it could be as constricting as French Socialism -- or worse. Obama offers philosophical hope to all.
And how easily (willingly?) some of our fellow conservative commentators are seduced to believe the good parts and hope away the bad bits.
What are we to make of the following dismissive assertion by Obama? "On this day, we come 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. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."
And then a few paragraphs on, he concludes the thought with the assertion that "what the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply."
What exactly are the "petty grievances," the "worn-out dogmas" and the "stale political arguments that have consumed us"? Well, as the most liberal senator in Washington, as a man who has called for redistributive justice and who told Joe the Plumber, "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody," it is a fair guess that free markets, low tax rates and a respect for private property are the worn-out dogmas, petty grievances and childish things that he believes we cynics must move beyond. One man's worn-out dogmas are another man's philosophical lodestars.
I believe that Obama intends to craft a new nationalism, using the disassembled timber of our traditional values to build a new, more collectivist and less individualistic ship of state. The planks will look vaguely familiar, but the ship will be quite different. It is as if he would disassemble the warship Old Ironsides and build with its timbers a collectivist's ark.
Oddly, my suspicion is confirmed by my liberal friend, scholar and columnist for The Washington Post E.J. Dionne, who wrote last week that "President Obama intends to use conservative values for progressive ends. He will cast extreme individualism as an infantile approach to politics that must be supplanted by a more adult sense of personal and collective responsibility. And in trying to do all these things, he will confuse a lot of people."
Perhaps E.J., hopefully, and I, suspiciously, both have misread Obama. But one is entitled to be suspicious of a politician who openly brags, "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." That strikes me as a conscious intent to deceive in order to diffuse opposition to his designs until it is too late to block them. Ronald Reagan never hid his policy intentions from public view. Neither, in fairness, did Lyndon Johnson or Walter Mondale or Barney Frank or Nancy Pelosi.
A politician who will not sail under his own flag sails, in effect, against all flags. Such a strategy may, in time, undercut his support from increasingly suspicious progressives, liberals, moderates and conservatives -- once they recognize the deception.