Obama Commits to “Remaking America”

by Randy Shaw on January 21, 2009

Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address was not his greatest or most passionate speech, but it was likely his most purposeful. Moving at a faster pace than usual, our new President sought to instill a sense of purpose in Americans, calling for a “new era of responsibility – a recognition, upon the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world.” Obama’s clarion call for Americans to “find meaning in something greater than themselves” stands in sharp contrast to outgoing President Bush’s call for Americans in the wake of 9/11 not to work for the common good, but to instead go shopping. All those who claim Barack Obama is non-ideological should read his speech – it reflects a President who rejects unrestricted individualism, unregulated capitalism, and who is overwhelmingly committed to policies that benefit the common good. Obama also advanced a foreign policy driven by ideals rather than power, contending that our superior military might does not “entitle us to do as we please.” Such words were the strongest indication that the Bush era is over.

Barack Obama has given so many high-profile speeches over the past year that many wondered how he could top them all with his Inaugural Address. He did not even try. Rather than reach for the rhetorical heavens, Obama gave a brisk speech whose chief message was that “the ground has shifted,” opening the door to big plans and a new direction for the nation.

Mutual Interest, Mutual Respect

I suspect most attention will be paid to Obama’s invitation to the world, including Muslim nations, to give the United States a new chance to form relationships of peace and trust. Obama pledged to build relationships based on “mutual interest and mutual respect,” a sharp divergence not simply from the Bush years, but from the history of United States foreign policy

Some will no doubt ask how Obama intends to implement this new approach to the international order will Hillary Clinton, James Jones, and other more hawkish leaders of his foreign policy team. We will know the answer soon enough, and recall Obama’s insistence that those he appoints implement his, not their, agenda.

One way Obama will curry favor abroad is to fulfill his inaugural pledge that the United States “can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect.” This is a far cry from the “greed is good” edict of the Ronald Reagan era, or the unwillingness of the Clinton or Bush Administration’s to accept global agreements limiting America’s use of resources.

The Promise of Citizenship

Obama’s speech is likely to be most remembered for his call to service, which he described as part of the “price and promise of citizenship.” Central to this idea is the positive recollection many have of the World War II era, when Americans unified behind a common goal. Since that time, Americans have been told to pursue individual wealth, and to equate the American Dream with individual success.

Obama’s is seeking to redefine the American Dream to place it in more collective terms. Once people start viewing success in such terms, support for universal health care, labor unions, and other collective expressions of the greater good follow.

Again, if this push for civic engagement, caring for the less fortunate and greater public service is “centrist” and “non-ideological,” then we all fit that bill.

Avoiding Specifics

Experts on inaugural addresses urged Obama to avoid specifics, which, other than a reference to the Iraqis’ taking control of their country, he did. The feeling is that the news frame of the day is the event itself, so Obama was advised to trail out his issuance of Executive Orders and other new policies until later this week.

But it still would have been nice for him to announce some non-controversial specifics, such as his plans to sign the children’s health expansion vetoed by Bush, or to end the federal ban on stem cell research. Or he could have used some anecdotes that stick in people’s mind, as he did in Grant Park on election night when he spoke of the 106-year old who supported him.

Rick Warren

After all the controversy, Rick Warren’s invocation was powerful, passionate and non-controversial. Reports that the evangelical pastor would substitute “Jesus” for the nonsectarian “God” proved inaccurate, with Warren prefacing his invoking Jesus by noting that this was how he personally came to God. Whether Warren helps build support for Obama’s environmental, anti-poverty and service initiatives remains to be seen, and many will be watching whether he starts toning down his anti-gay rhetoric.

Public Viewing: A Throwback to the Past

Most striking about the address was the number of people who watched it in a public setting. It was a throwback to the 1930’s and 1940’s, when most people could not afford televisions and watched major events on huge public screens in downtown squares.

The nature of the viewing reflects Obama’s focus on the collective spirit, showing that he has tapped a long dormant impulse in the American people that many are eager to unleash.

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