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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 104

Obama Challenges Americans to Dust Themselves Off, Begin Remaking the US

By Ernest Corea, former Sri Lankan Ambassador to the US

Washington DC, 22 January, ( Barack Hussein Obama took his oath as president of the United States of America with his hand placed on the Bible used by Abraham Lincoln, the great liberator, at his inauguration. Michelle Obama held the Bible in place for her husband. To the millions who saw this sight, directly or electronically, it was confirmation that America has now achieved yet another revolution. For the first time in this nation's history, an African-American is in charge. Think of it: "we the people" have installed a black American "first family" in the White House that was built with slave labor.

Thomas Jefferson said that "every generation needs a new revolution." He was not talking about fighting at the barricades. He was suggesting that a nation needs to be periodically renewed – cleansed of past misperceptions, misunderstandings, and mistakes – and strengthened with new ideas, new practices, and new possibilities. Such a revolution took place when a majority of American voters chose an African-American as this country's 44th president on Nov. 4, 2008. Michelle Bernard, an African-American television commentator, captured the essence of the m oment when she said: "November 4 was our July 4." The deal was sealed when Chief Justice John Roberts administered the presidential oath to Obama, thereby formally inaugurating the new presidency. Ironically, Obama voted against the confirmation of Chief Justice Roberts, who was nominated for the post by George W. Bush.

To witness and commemorate Barack Obama's inauguration, a crowd estimated at around 2 million descended on the national mall, the 1.9 miles long park land situated between Washington's Capitol, which houses the Senate and House of Representatives, and the stately monument to Abraham Lincoln. They also spilled over into some surrounding streets. Some in the crowd traveled to the event from abroad, because they wanted to be present when history was made. They all endured frigid weather for hours, arriving at the mall even before it was open to the public around 4 am. No matter. This was a joyous, celebratory crowd. Strangers hugged each other. They sang, they danced, and they mocked the departing administration, spontaneously bursting into a song that the crowd sings at sports events when an errant player is ejected. They raucously welcomed the new president and vice president. They laughed, and they cried, releasing their emotions in tears of joy.

(The public mood turned somber with the news that Senator Edward Kennedy had suffered a "medical emergency" during the post-inauguration lunch and been moved to a nearby hospital. There was much relief when later reports said he was "doing well.")

Across the country, those who did not wish to make the trip to the national mall stayed in front of their television sets in their own homes, or joined friends at "viewing parties." Some visited movie houses where the inauguration was up on the "big screen." Celebrations continued across the globe: in Obama City, Japan, where a statue of the new American president is being built, at villages near the shores of Lake Victoria, where Obama's father was born, across Latin America and the Caribbean, at private and public places in Germany, in London, England where an expatriate American happily announced, "at last, I can stop pretending to be a Canadian," and elsewhere…and elsewhere.

Barack Obama's inaugural address (18 minutes, 10 seconds) was the manifesto of the revolution, signifying that an African-American with a powerful vision of the future hopes to refashion his country. It is a vision that draws strength from the principles of the past to overcome the crises of the present and move towards a new destiny. It is a vision based on unity, freedom, and pragmatism; a vision unburdened by the kind of stultifying ideology that dominated the US for eight years. Not surprisingly, one of his first acts as president was to sign a proclamation designating January 20 as a Day of Renewal and Reconciliation. In a similar spirit he ruled that all prosecutions at the infamous Guantanamo Bay "facility" should be suspended for three months while they are reviewed by the new administration.

Obama did not present himself for election as a black candidate, but as a candidate who is black. Asked in an interview why he made no reference in a recently delivered speech to the fact that he is black, Obama shot back: "the audience would have noticed." His genius was that he could use the beauty and electri fying power of his rhetoric to combine issues that matter particularly to the African-American community with issues of comparable importance to other segments of society or, in fact, to society as a whole. All needed to be addressed together.

He did not specifically claim a victory for African-Americans in his inaugural address. He talked, instead, about the country's founding principle of liberty, and reminded his many audiences that it is because of an over-arching commitment to this principle that "men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

There were others in the massive crowd on the national mall and elsewhere who expressed a particularly African-American viewpoint with great emotion. Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a pioneer of the civil rights movement, who was beaten almost to death by its brutal opponents, said: "I never imagined, I never even had any idea, I w ould live to see an African-American president of the United States. We have witnessed in America a revolution of values, a revolution of ideals. There's been a transformation of America, and it will have unbelievable influence on the world."

Actor Will Smith, asked how he reacted to Obama's election, replied: "Don't do this to me, man. I'm going to have to cry again." Bill Cosby said that when he entered the voting booth he carried with him the pictures of his father, mother, and late brother. He drew the curtain behind him, took out the pictures, and said to them: "Now, we're going to vote." It was only then, he said, that he voted –"it was great." A 100-year-old African-American from Louisiana, who had picked cotton as a youth, was being helped from the train at W ashington's Union Station when, with tears streaming down his face, he paused and told passers-by: "I had to be here." Former Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell, commenting during the inauguration, confessed: "I'm proud to say that I was tearing up like everybody else."

Notwithstanding these and other outpourings of emotion, Obama was elected by a multi-hued, multi-ethnic, multi-religious coalition: Native-Americans, African-Americans, white voters, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, young (mostly first-time) voters, women, liberals, moderates, and independents. This is the America Obama believes in, as he proclaimed in his inaugural address: "We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; and that as t he world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; aand that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace."

But before looking to re-establishment of peace abroad, there is pressing business at home. Assuming a true leader's mantle, Obama did not resort to platitudes when he described the situation in which the country finds itself. Instead, he grimly acknowledged the breadth and depth of the crises that the US confronts: "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. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversarries and threaten our planet."

Much has been squandered in eight years. A federal budget surplus of $236.2 billion in 2000 has been transformed into a deficit of $1.2 trillion, the projected figure for 2009 (yes, that' "trillion" ). The number of families living in poverty has increase from 6.4 million (2000) to 7.6 million (2007). The unemployment rate rose from 4.2 percent (2001) to the current 7.2 percent. Over 2.6 million jobs were lost last year. Market-fundamentalism lies inert. Cockahoop deregulation is recognized for the damge it has caused. Given the fact that the symbol of the party represented by the outgoing administration is the elephant, the cynics are right when they claim that the new administration has to be shovel-ready on Day 1 to clean up the mess that's been left behind.

Obama understands what the country is up against, and what he as the nation's leader is up against. Yet, the organizer-for-progress and practical taskmaster as always, he encourages nobody to wallow in pessimism and frustrated disquiet. "Today I say unto you that the challenges we face are real," he acknowledged. "They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short space of time. But know this, America – they will be met." And then he bluntly cautioned: "greatness is never a given, it must be earned." So it's time, for all Americans to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."
Obama is always pulled by the tug of history. For the present and the future, however, he is equally convinced of the need to tap into all that is strong in the contemporary world; to resinstitute science as a determinant and creative force in national life, to make modern technology available to all, and to develop a green economy that will provide new jobs without damaging a fragile environment.

Obama faces challenges abroad that are no less critical than those which engulf the domestic scene. He is committed to responsibly ending the "war of choice" that the US has been waging in Iraq. The situation in Afghanistan remains as dauntingly confused and confusing as all past "interveners" found it. The massacre in Mumbai was a reminder of the dangers inherent in South Asia's nuclear neighborhood. A clash of interests remains perennial in the Middle East. The world expects new directions in American policy towards all these issues and so does President Obama. With George W. Bush and Dick Cheney seated within touching distance, he flatly rejected the bad choices they=2 0had made with disastrous consequences. He derided as false, "the choice between our safety and our ideals." Reminding his audience and the world of the the nation's founding commitment to the rule of law and the rights of man, he pledged: "we will not give them up for expedience's sake." Oops, there go turture, rendition, and detention without trial.

He assured the world at large that "America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity." Addressing the "Muslim world," he offered "a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect." The US, he declared, will extend a hand to all those who are willing to unclench their fist.

Inaugural addresses are occasions for an enunciation of policy, for indications of how a president will seek to govern, and also for lofty oratory that might not outlast the first flush of post-election enthusiasm. Critics will wonder aloud whether Obama can fulfil the expectations he has raised, knowing that the nation and the president confront a formidable array of challenges. At the moment, despite the cr itics, he is assured of broad support as he gets down to business. For instance, the Senate which is not usually identified with speed, confirmed several of the new president's nominees on inauguration day itself. The Senate approved Nobel laureate Steven Chu as Energy secretary (i.e. minister), Arne Duncan as Education secretary, Janet Napolitano as Homeland Security secretary, Peter Orzag as head of the Office of Management and Budget and Tom Vilsack as secretary of Agriculture by "voice vote." Senate majority leader Harry Reid expects the rest of the nominees to be confirmed "soon."

Can that pace and the current mood of optimism prevail? "Yes, we can," Obama said during his election campaign, and "yes, we did," say his supporters, adding, when asked about prospects for the future: "yes, we will."

- Asian Tribune -

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