US Affairs: 'I, Barack Hussein Obama...'

The new US president is no longer looking to stir up Americans; he is seeking to sustain them.

obama swearing in take 1 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
obama swearing in take 1 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
Of the many remarkable words uttered by America's new president during his inauguration Tuesday, perhaps the most exceptional were the first: "I, Barack Hussein Obama." There was a palpable catching of breaths among the masses of onlookers crammed in front of the towering white US Capitol when he spoke, and then tears of emotion and joy from supporters who knew they were witnessing a triumph of history at hearing that name adorned with the title of president of the United States. For it encompasses a first name more easily pronounced by Israelis than Americans; a last name with a cadence in striking contrasts to the Johnsons and Adamses and Bushes that proceeded him; and a middle name shared with an arch-foe of America. And thus, as the first black man to take over the White House, with a moniker that can't conceal his otherness, he had only to recite his name while taking the oath of office to begin the change he made a central campaign slogan and promise. And he did not stop there. He spent the 18.5 minutes of his inaugural address attempting to break with his immediate past by taking a different stance from his predecessor on issues, well packed in code terms, ranging from global warming to torture to Iraq. He spoke of the need to "begin again the work of remaking America" and that "we are ready to lead once more." Still, in the few policy prescriptions he offered Tuesday, there was little new. Instead, he echoed campaign promises of more international engagement and bold work to stabilize the economy, or further sketched out the moderate pragmatism demonstrated by his personnel choices, such as his promise to leave Iraq "responsibly" rather than immediately, despite a quick withdrawal's being a central demand he heard on the campaign trail. In fact, despite the criticism Obama faced during those many months, that he would be a weak defender of America and abruptly change the way national security is approached, his inaugural address merely gave a softer version of his predecessor George W. Bush's own articulation of America's determination to prevail against its enemies. "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense," he maintained. "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." SO, CONCEIVABLY, his freshest departure was the extent to which he laid the blame for these problems not at the door of the past administration or evil outsiders, but at the feet of the American public. "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age," he said at one point, adding that "a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous." At another, pushing Americans to move past "the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas" of politics as usual, he reminded them, "in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things." If he staked out one specific theme in this address, it was his call for sacrifice and ownership of the challenges ahead. "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly." He struck a sober tone in comparison to the rhetorically soaring form that he honed on the campaign trail and brandished as a key weapon in the arsenal that allowed him, a largely unknown freshman senator, to slay the giants of his party and the dragons of the opposition. SOME PUNDITS panned the address for failing to live up not only to the inaugural speeches of the greatest presidents who preceded him, but also to the campaign speeches of his own pen. But Obama is no longer looking to stir up Americans; he is seeking to sustain them. While his words of being "in the midst of crisis" and of blame for Americans' own role in their misfortune might have seemed a jarring notion for the candidate who made hope a centerpiece of his campaign, his focus on the "we," on the shared obligations of the population, actually pointed to the real engine of change. If the American people are the ones who need to effect change, rather than forces beyond anyone's portfolio, it provides some degree of hope, because it offers a course for action to be taken. "This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed - why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall," he declared. And the success of shaping that uncertain destiny will depend more on collective action than individual will, even when that individual is one Barack Hussein Obama.