“Never in our national history has there been so dramatic acoincidence as this simultaneous transfer of power and the complete collapse of a system and of a philosophy.”
Resonant and relevant words at this moment.
Those words come from March 1933, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt marked the end of an epoch, and The Nation editorializedthat his inaugural words “had something of the challenge, thesymbolism, and the simplicity of a trumpet blast.”
As Barack Obama was sworn in as America’s 44th president, weheard a new trumpet blast. The simple and powerful symbolism of the44th President’s inauguration reminded us, again, of what a stirringmilestone his election marks for America’s scarred racial landscape—and what a victory for the forces of decency, diversity and tolerance.
More than 2 million people gathered in Washington to celebrate–a seaof people peaceably, happily, roaring, sometimes in unison, to express theirhope and anticipation for a new era. It seemed as if towns and cities acrossthe country stood still for this moment–eager, almost desperate forObama to succeed.
And at just after high noon, Obama– the first Community-Organizer-in-Chief–took the oath of office, placing his hand on the Lincoln bible. The man who ran by crafting and mobilizing a new coalition of the young,African-Americans, Latinos, and the once- disenfranchised, summonedgenerations, new and old, to return “to a new era of responsibility.” Hespoke of service as “the price and promise of citizenship.” In somberwords, reminiscent of Roosevelt’s, Obama spoke of “homes lost, jobslost, factories shuttered” and the need not to lose confidence.
These are times that demand “bold and swift action” and he challenged those”who question the scale of our ambitions.” In decisive tones, Obamastamped government’s role with his own vision. It is not apost-ideological one as some argue, but rather one that understands isit only through effective use of government which will improve theactual, hard conditions of people’s lives will we able to restore trustin its larger purpose. As Obama said, it is “not whether it is too bigor too small, it is whether our government works.”
In a muted indictment of the Bush/Cheney era (one whose lasting metaphormay be Vice-President Cheney departing power in a wheelchair), Obamareached out to a world eager to reengage an America committed to therule of law. “My message to the grandest capitals and to the smallestvillages, we are friends to those who seek a future of peace anddignity.” He spoke of how “our power grows in prudent use, and from theforce of our example. ”
And with a tone of humility absent for these last eight years, Obama spoke of withdrawing troops from Iraq, “forging a hard earned peace in Afghanistan, and lessening the nuclear threat.” Most powerfully, Obama stated we “must usher in a new era of peace.”
Obama’s speech summoned all Americans, as President Lincoln did inhis first inaugural, to heed “the better angels of our nature.” And as he did at Sunday’sconcert, Obama spoke eloquently about the value of creating a community of respect, defined by qualities of “courage, fair play, curiosity and tolerance.”
And in summoning generations to engage in a new era of responsibility, Obama wisely never lost sight of government’s role and responsibilities. And always imbuing this moment, one defined by hope and fear in roughly equal measure, was Obama’s unerring sense of confidence, possibility, even joy. Those are qualities allow people to think they are part of ” a nation greater than themselves.”
And in very personal words, Obama remembered the struggles of those whofought so he could stand where he did this afternoon.It is “why a manwho might not have been served in a local restaurant 60 years ago canstand before you today to take this oath…How far we have traveled.”
Ending with George Washington’s words, issued at a difficult time inour country’s history, Obama appealed to the qualities of hope andvirtue that have allowed our nation to survive and endure. It is thatendurance–of leaders and ordinary people–that allowed millions towitness the peaceful transfer of power to our first African AmericanPresident.
Inaugural speeches, at their best, set the tone and offer we, thepeople, a challenge. It is now we, the people, who mustact–organizing,mobilizing to counter the forces of money andestablishment power which remain obstacles to meaningful reform. Let usbe the wind at the new President’s back, to ensure that together we complete the unfinished work of making America a more perfect union.
We can, yes.