Opinion: Columnists

Gene Healy: Pomp and circumstance, all signifying nothing

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Congressional Quarterly's comprehensive "Guide to the Presidency" helpfully explains that "the only part of the inaugural ceremony that is required by the Constitution is the taking of the oath of office." If only somebody had bothered to check, we could have wrapped it all up Sunday when Chief Justice John Roberts swore Barack Obama in for his second term, and spared ourselves an extra day's worth of pomp, circumstance and dreadful poetry.

After his swearing-in, "Calvin Coolidge simply went to bed in 1925." George Washington's admirably brief second inaugural clocks in at 135 words. But modern presidents fail to appreciate that for presidential inaugurations, as with presidential activism, less is more. In his first inaugural, in 1993, Bill Clinton suggested that the ritual of presidential anointment brings hope and life to the world: "This ceremony is held in the depth of winter. But, by the words we speak and the faces we show the world, we force the spring."

In his unsettling second inaugural, in the midst of two bloody and seemingly endless wars, an unfazed George W. Bush pledged America to "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

Four years ago in his first inaugural, a newly anointed President Obama promised a transformational presidency that would "wield technology's wonders" and "harness the sun and the winds." He decried "the cynics" who dared to "question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest our system cannot tolerate too many big plans."

This time around, the president seems not to have adjusted the scale of his ambitions downward. Columnist Steve Chapman summed it up on Twitter: "Shorter Obama inaugural speech: I'm a liberal. Deal with it."

Would that it had been shorter. Though most of yesterday's address was a high-minded word-souffle, light on specific policy prescriptions, several passages stuck out. For example: "We reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future."

That's an odd response to fiscal reality from the president of the self-styled "reality-based community." As my colleague Mike Tanner noted recently, "if one includes the full future unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare, our real indebtedness could run as high as $129 trillion in current dollars."

"The path towards sustainable energy sources ... [is] what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared." I'd thought it was pretty brazen when Energy Secretary Steven Chu dismissed the taxpayers' half-billion-dollar loss in the Solyndra debacle by saying, "One has to take risks in order to promote innovative manufacturing." But at least Chu stopped short of invoking Jefferson for the administration's pet green energy schemes.

"Enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war." It's more brazen still to hear a denunciation of "perpetual war" from the president who has institutionalized it. In the investigative report from the Washington Post last fall that introduced us to the term "disposition matrix" (Obama-Newspeak for "presidential kill list"), we learned that "among senior Obama administration officials, there is a broad consensus that [drone-warfare] operations are likely to be extended at least another decade ... no clear end is in sight."

Might I recommend, as a post-inaugural hangover cure, my new e-book, "False Idol"? In it, I suggest that "Obama's failure might, to borrow one of the president's favorite phrases, serve as a 'teachable moment,' encouraging Americans to better align our expectations with reality."

A president's magic words cannot "force the spring" to come earlier, "end tyranny in our world," suspend budgetary math or make the current welfare-warfare state affordable. It's past time we learned that lesson.

Examiner Columnist Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of "The Cult of the Presidency."

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