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President Obama and the 9/11 Memorial: A Missed Opportunity



On Thursday President Obama spoke at the dedication of the 9/11 Museum. The event was nationally televised and attracted a large crowd of survivors, family members of those lost in the terrorist attack, and political dignitaries that included former President Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

The speech the president gave was vintage Obama–well delivered remarks focused on the emotional story of Welles Crowther, a young man who repeatedly risked his life to save others in the South Tower of the World Trade Center until the building collapsed and killed him. President Obama delivered the speech with appropriate emotion in his voice and has Welles Crowther’s mother, Allison, and one of the women Welles saved, Ling Young, at his speech to add to the visceral impact.

Although the speech was effective at paying tribute to the heroes from 9/11 and in dedicating the museum as a national landmark, the remarks did little for Americans in 2014 who fear threats from terrorists and foreign powers like Russia, doubt the role of the United States to use its power to make the world a safer place, and are suffering from years of gridlocked politics that has lead to a decline in trust in government.

In ancient Athenian culture the practice of leaders delivering a public funeral oration to thousands of citizens after significant battles was critical to keeping the state together and strong. The most famous of these addresses was delivered by Pericles in 431 BC and recorded by Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian War.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is the most well known American speech of this type and as historian Garry Wills claims, served to begin the process of  remaking the United States after it was torn apart by the Civil War.  Likewise historian James McPherson claims the speech was the “most eloquent expression of the new birth of freedom.” Both historians claim that Lincoln’s address was modeled on Pericles’ funeral oration.

This address consists of five basic parts: 1. the proemium or praise of its predecessors, 2.) a section praising of the dead, 3.) a celebration of the nation, 4.) an exhortation to the living, and 5. an epilogue or closing.  President Obama’s speech at the 9/11 museum lacked two elements of a traditional funeral oration–an opening that puts the event in historical context and a strong exhortation to Americans in 2014. Because the president’s speech lacked these key elements, Obama failed to advance a strong policy argument about American security policy, thus not reuniting Americans over the event that thirteen years previously had brought Americans together.

The president began by telling the story of Welles Crowther’s heroism in saving lives, until losing his own. The president closes his opening story by describing Crowther’s actions as selfless: “They didn’t know his name. They didn’t know where he came from. But they knew their lives had been saved by the man in the red bandana.”  At the end of the opening the president states the ultimate purpose of the museum and his speech: “But above all, to reaffirm the true spirit of 9/11 — love, compassion, sacrifice — and to enshrine it forever in the heart of our nation.”  His opening was solely focused in the events on and since 9/11 and on the heroic acts of individuals. Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, opens by going back to the revolution–“Four score and seven years ago our forefathers. . .”–and to the founding principles of the country–liberty and equality.

The strongest part of Obama’s speech was how he praised the dead. The president spoke of past and current heroes as he spoke of “coworkers who led others to safety” and “passengers who stormed the cockpit,” as well as service members “who have served with honor in more than a decade of war.” The president continued his praise of Welles Crowther in the middle section of the speech as he spoke of Crowther working in finance, but being a volunteer firefighter and how he had always worn a red bandana. He closed this section of the speech by saying: “And after the planes hit, he put on that bandana and spent his final moments saving others.”

The president ends his speech by speaking about the sacrifice of young people like Crowther and how his spirit lives on in family members: “Those we lost live on in us. In the families who love them still. In the friends who remember them always. And in a nation that will honor them, now and forever.” At the end of his remarks, the president introduced Allison Crowther and Ling Young.

Obama really fails to take advantage of an important historical moment and address the nation, as Lincoln did in the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln spoke about the dead not dying in vain and how the nation will have a new birth in freedom. The president had an opportunity to give meaning to those who died in the World Trade Center attacks and rhetorically unite the American people toward a common goal, whether that is continuing the fight against terrorism or restoring American honor and pride around the world.

By failing to understand the rhetorical potential in the 9/11 museum dedication in terms of reuniting Americans, President Obama missed an important opportunity that he may not have again before his presidency ends. Ceremonial occasions, like the museum dedication, with a huge national audience happen very infrequently. Some presidents like Lincoln and Reagan (at Normandy) seize the opportunity to turn a ceremonial occasion into a very significant event. Other presidents see it as an opportunity to “say a few words.”


Establishment Republicans vs. Tea Party Republicans: Why it Won’t Matter

Recently pundits have been discussing early 2014 Republican primary results as wins by “establishment Republicans” over “Tea Party Republicans,” suggesting there is a great schism in the party that may provide an opening for Democrats in November. Former George W. Bush advisor Karl Rove penned an opinion column in today’s Wall Street Journal that argues that early results, like Thom Tillis’ victory in the NC Senate primary was actually bringing together various elements within the Republican Party. Rove points to a poll run by his American Crossroads PAC showing support for Tillis from business-leaning, tea party, and social conservative Republicans as evidence for a unified party heading into the fall campaign.

To me the Tillis victory was a case of a more well known candidate with a huge money advantage beating inexperienced opponents. I don’t read much else into his win or other early Republican candidate victories in primary elections. I do think, however, that Rove’s view is very short-sighted and that both major parties–Democratic and Republican–are more fractured than at any point in the last four decades and we are about to enter a period in which both parties are going to face existential problems and, by 2020, we may see a very different political landscape, even to the point in which a legitimate third parties rises and threatens the continued relevance of one of the current major parties.

Political scientists often talk about political realignment when there is a dramatic change in the political system. V. O. Key, Jr. (1955) hypothesized that a single election often dramatically changes the political landscape and can even cause political parties to fundamentally change or even disappear. The election of 1860, for example, caused the Republicans to ascend in power, particularly after the collapse of the Whigs in 1852.

Other political scientists believe that realignment happens more gradually and regularly. Walter Dean Burnham (1970) argues that political realignments occur every 30-36 years in this country and, that, these fundamental changes in the political system don’t always occur because of an individual election, but could occur more gradually over several years.

Although political scientists may disagree about the time period for this fundamental changes in the political system, they agree that it is a result of major changes in voters. At times, through true realignment, as we have seen in North Carolina starting with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, conservative voters switched in large numbers from the Democratic to the Republican party. At times in American history, voters have moved away from political parties and become more independent, called “dealignment” by academics.

We are entering a very important period for both parties as changing demographics will continue to affect elections. Much has been written about how the changing ethnic and racial makeup of the country may be favorable to Democrats, both nationally and in regions of the country considered Republican strongholds for the last thirty years.

Although I believe that the changing ethnic and racial demographics of the country will significantly affect future elections, it is the massive influx of the millennial generation into the political system that may have the most profound impact on the political system. There is already significant evidence that this generation, although its voting rates are dwarfed by that of senior citizens, are already affecting social policies in this country. The pendulum shift in public opinion on same-sex marriage and the corresponding legalization of this is almost twenty states reflects the opinion of a majority of millennials and the legalization of recreation marijuana use in Colorado and Washington has strong support among this generation.

The larger impact of the millennials over the next decade will be in the political process. Research from Pew, for example, states that a majority of this generation don’t trust government to do the right thing and that a majority consider themselves independent. That, coupled with the research on “The New American Center,” conducted by Esquire and NBC News that found that this generation is more moderate on many political issues than on older generations, bodes very poorly for the current Democratic and Republican parties. Millennials see themselves as problem-solvers and ones that can compromise to make important changes in their communities. The political parties are more prone to drawing lines in the ideological sand.

As the millennial generation becomes a larger force in the political system, their very numbers could lead to the formation of a centrist party, one that may attract moderates dissatisfied with the ideological extremists in the Democratic and Republican parties. The millennials are already dealigning themselves from the tradition parties and it may be the 2014 midterm elections, particularly if partisan gridlock and warring continues as it has for the last four years, that leads to a major realignment in the political parties, this time lead by younger voters.