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Grandeur and banality as Obama ascends

  • 21 January 2009

The crowds gathered in chilly Washington D.C. were huge, a buzzing 'mass of humanity' as a reporter for American network MSNBC put it, with 'children living their history'.

It was grand ceremony, punctuated by occasional moments of banality — Elizabeth Alexander's poem was a touch prosaic, but then again, it was meant to be, extolling the genius of measured pragmatism, the gutsy pursuit of settling a rugged West, the taming of environment for prosperity — and nervousness, as witnessed in Chief Justice John Roberts' stumbling over quoting the oath.

There was, of course, only one reason most had journeyed to Washington. Barack Obama's inauguration speech straddled old themes. Americans needed to return to certain core truths: 'challenges may be new', but their values were eternal, 'honesty, and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance, loyalty and patriotism.'

These were times, he said, where his oath was 'taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms'. The greedy had tinkered with market forces. A global 'network of violence' continued to threaten American interests. As President John F. Kennedy had exhorted before him, burdens of responsibility long-shed had to be retaken.

'We have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly.' There had been a distinct and 'collective failure to make hard choices'.

Americans needed to be 'faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents'. Terrorism would not trump the ideals of civilisation (an always difficult concept — terrorism, and violence, are so often the essence of civilisational preservation and spread). Safety would not compromise ideals (a statement drawn from his campaign drawer).

And there was that renewed interest in government — the question, Obama posed, was not the issue of how large or small government is, but whether it works. Programs that don't will be scrapped, he said, with an air of  almost Ronald Reagan-like foreboding.

One thing distinctly not in the shadow of Reagan was the admission by Obama that markets, despite being engines for prosperity, needed a watchful eye. The creation of wealth can never be the pursuit of the few. Excesses needed to be policed and curtailed.

In the end, Obama said what was expected. He acknowledged the animating principles of the republic. Even George Washington deserved a mention: when