Grandeur and banality as Obama ascends


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 the incipient republic, with its freezing patriots, risked annihilation at the hands of the British, an epiphany presented itself: 'Let it be hold to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive ... that the city and the country, alarmed by one common danger, came forth to meet [it].'

Obama sought, as David Brooks of the New York Times hoped he would, to pitch a message ending the Great Disruption, a term coined by Francis Fukuyama to describe periods of political strife and division that followed from the 1960s. Americans, Obama insisted, were strengthened by their very 'patchwork' existence, invigorated rather than weakened by disparateness.

'We are ready to lead once more.' How that leadership takes shape will be a point of curiosity and perhaps a little dread. The world cannot do without American influence and an understanding of both its power and limits. Whether it can do without the 'stale political arguments' of old remains to be seen.

Binoy KampmarkBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.

Topic tags: binoy kampmark, barack obama, inauguration speech



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Existing comments

Thought your article just a touch mean-spirited, a kind of damning with faint praise. A good thing has just happened, and everyone involved did their very best. It doesn't hurt to just leave it at that, on their big day.

David Conolly | 21 January 2009  

Endlessly we are being reminded that Barack Obama is the first black president. Yes, that is a wonderful hurdle to have been cleared. But let us not forget that he was elected overwhelmingly because of his competence, not his colour. Today America moved from dark night to bright day - a giant leap in presidential intellect, eloquence and ability to inspire - truly a leap from the ridiculous to the sublime. Eight years ago, and again four, we shook our heads in disbelief at the folly of the American electorate. Today they can stand proud in the wisdom of their most recent choice, and, for many, in conquering their prejudices.

Richard Olive | 21 January 2009  

Let us not forget that Obama won only 53% of the votes cast. He still has many opponents within USA not only among Republicans but also among Democrats. Let's hope his reputed pragmatism matches his charismatic oratory. The world needs a wise and courageous US President. Obama could be such a President. Let's hope so.

Joseph Quigley | 21 January 2009  

The headlines say it all. Along with the commentary from a Scholar & the Jesuits think everyone should believe they ate the "intelligent species". The imaginary man told them that too.

Atheistno1 | 21 January 2009  

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