|Obama during the ceremonial inauguration in Washington on Monday. (Reuters)
Washington, Jan. 21: Barack Obama began the first working day of his new term as President of the United States by reminding supporters who thronged his inauguration on the steps of the Capitol not to be giddy in victory and that “our journey is not complete”.
Obama told a crowd on the National Mall, nowhere as large as the one that ushered him into office four years ago, that “our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm”.
The streets of Detroit have scenes of poverty and deprivation that is worse than that in some Third World cities and Newtown was the location of horrific gun violence that killed schoolchildren in December.
In a sombre and strikingly short 19-minute address, Obama warned of “an uncertain future” and said: “We, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”
The President focused on the failed hopes of those who had created history in 2008 by electing America’s first black head of state and dwelt on the issues he could not tackle to the satisfaction of his supporters. It rekindled expectation that Obama’s second term would be different from his first.
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” Global warming is one such issue on which the Obama administration was found wanting in the opportunist knowledge that any purposeful effort to deal with it would anger big business, cost jobs and risk votes for the President’s re-election.
But fate willed that a severe hurricane just before election day in November jolted Americans into the realisation that climate change can be ignored only at their peril.
Obama’s handling of the hurricane, in fact, persuaded many Republicans to vote for him and he has now found enough political capital to address the issue in his new term.
“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgement of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition. We must lead it,” said Obama today, dwelling on it at length although it is not a populist subject.
Obama’s inauguration today came half a century after Martin Luther King became an inspiration for the oppressed of the world with his “I have a dream” speech.
Fate and circumstance willed that MLK’s “dream” became a reality for the second time on the commemoration of his 84th birthday today when Obama delivered an aspirational speech a stone’s throw from the venue of King’s historic address.
Obama’s meteoric rise from a one-term senator to President four years ago has all along been linked to landmarks in the assassinated civil rights leader’s life.
By a coincidence, his acceptance of the Democratic Party’s nomination for President in 2008 fell precisely on the 45th anniversary of King’s “I have a dream” speech. By another coincidence Obama’s second inauguration today came on “MLK Day” which commemorates the third Monday of January under law as his birthday, though King was actually born on January 15.
The slain civil rights advocate had declared in 1963 that “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal”. Today, Obama declared it as his creed and repeated those words, not quoting King any more but adopting those as his own: “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still.”
A second presidential inauguration has been compared by long-time Bill Clinton aide Paul Begala to a remarriage: the same two people renewing their conjugal commitment to each other after several years of their marriage has been “approved” in a popular re-election.
A renewal of wedding vows between the same two people is not easy and can turn out to be a dreary exercise. But Obama soared before the American public today, making them forget, albeit briefly, that the challenges of the second presidential term are difficult with a divided Congress and Washington’s political partisan divide.
Obama cast his four years ahead as an incomplete “journey”, using the word six times in 19 minutes. He stressed that despite differences, all Americans are in that journey “together”, using that word seven times, raising hopes that he would reach out across the aisle to Republicans to solve America’s problems.
There was a generous dose of liberalism in his address, something his strongest supporters in 2008 were eager to hear. “A free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play,” he said, for instance, suggesting the re-election effort that held Obama back so far from an assault on capitalist greed will no longer be tenable.
Similarly, he said “a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers”, raising expectations of a renewal of infrastructure and social development.