January 20, 2009
Getting used to saying "President Barack Obama" may take some time, but after a few hours, it doesn't sound as bizarre to my ears as it did at first. Like him or not, he is our president, and he certainly carries himself well in ceremonial duties. He clearly has "presidential timber."
Barack Obama's inauguration was a welcome upbeat occasion, in the midst of mounting global troubles and domestic economic decline. (The Dow Jones fell more than 300 points today.) His poise was put to the test early on: Chief Justice John Roberts stumbled over his words as he was administering the oath of office, which is prescribed by the U.S. Constitution. Obama didn't let it bother him. Compared to George W. Bush's second inaugural address four years ago, today's speech by Obama was more sober in tone and less narrowly focused. Confounding the expectations of most people (myself included), it was not full of fluffy rhetorical one-liners but was, rather, remarkably substantive in nature. Early on, he showed awareness that his first big challenge is to overcome the doubts of his critics, and he did so by questioning their precepts:
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.
The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.
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. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. (SOURCE: washingtonpost.com.)
Obama leaves no doubt that he plans to proceed boldly, and making health care a universal right seems to be one of his top priorities, so does this herald a radical socialist agenda? The outcome of the initial phase of Obama administration depends to a large extent upon how the Republicans in Congress respond. If they show flexibility and are willing to engage in bipartisan give-and-take, they should manage to avoid the worst-case scenario -- socialism -- which of course is the best-case scenario for those on the Left.
In the section on foreign policy, Obama spoke of the limits of power and the power of ideals. (His predecessor had a strong grasp of the latter concept, but a very weak grasp on the former.) Those whose understanding of global politics is grounded in the realist tradition (such as I) will be pleased by this. The following words were aimed at reassuring hawks:
We will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense.
And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that, "Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.
That was a clever and effective turn of phrase, implicitly using his own mixed racial background to his advantage. And finally, these words of warning to tyrannical despots (unnamed, but surely referring to Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Putin of Russia, and Chavez of Venezuela) are universal in application:
To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
Well put! Conveying such an air of calm self-confidence is a good sign that Obama knows what he is doing. Toward the end, he spoke of this being "a new era of responsibility," a clear contrast to the Clinton-Bush era of carefree hedonism. I liked his allusion to George Washington at Valley Forge, challenging Americans to stand fast "in this winter of our hardship" and thereby carry forward the gift of freedom.
And speaking of the frigid temperatures, Obama's theme of "change" took on a new meaning today. Hundreds of thousands of shivering spectators waited in the cold for hours, hoping to get close enough to see the inaugural platform, but many of them decided to leave early, unable to take it. Can someone change the weather, please?
As expected, the whitehouse.gov Web site suddenly transformed at high noon, with new interactive features such as an RSS feed and a blog. Does this mean anonymous adolescent rogues will be able to post comments there? Somehow I doubt it. I checked to see whether the text of former President Bush's farewell address (which I referenced on January 15) is still on that Web site, and learned that it has been deleted, or perhaps moved elsewhere. In that blog post, I stressed the importance of maintaining continuity in terms of online documents during presidential transitions, so that's too bad.
Soon after Obama's inaugural address, the 43rd president and Mrs. Bush flew back to Texas, maintaining a proper air of dignity. George and Laura deserve hearty praise from the American people for doing everything possible to ensure that the transition went smoothly, without a hint of rancor. Bush II's stewardship during the first 94 months of his term are wide open to criticism, on the other hand. It will take years for presidential scholars (and lesser pundits) to arrive at a balanced evaluation of "W," and in the mean time, the future direction of the Republican Party hangs in the balance.
Even though I'm not a fan of Obama, and am leery of his agenda, I admire his abilities and his dedication to making this country a better place to live. I hope he is a quick learner and doesn't prove to be as stubborn and headstrong as either Bush II or Clinton. I also hope that people on my side of the political spectrum show good sportsmanship, refraining from doing or saying anything to spoil the Obama administration. As part of the "loyal opposition," I wish the new president well as he undertakes a burden that would quickly overwhelm most of us. I am happy for those who supported him, hoping that their sky-high hopes for him are not disappointed too roughly, and I can truly say on this historical occasion that I am "proud to be an American."