A look back at Obama’s inauguration

As we prepare to welcome Joe Biden as US President a week on Wednesday, I thought it might be an idea to look back at previous inaugurations.

Let’s hope that we get to 20th January without any more of the scenes we saw this week. There may well be drama in Congress as the Democrats attempt a second impeachment, but the last thing anybody needs is more injury or loss of life.

I’m thinking back 12 years to Obama’s inaugural speech. I will never forget it. But that is partly because our hamster Puffball died during it, not just for its inspiring and hopeful qualities.

You can watch it, subtitled, here.

And read it here.

Then LDV co-editor Stephen Tall said that he came across as the “ultimate pragmatist CEO”:

Was this speech a mesmerising tour de force which will rank among his best? Not for me. But that’s not a bad thing at all, because what the speech did demonstrate was a sense of uncompromising purpose – and I’ll take that over highfalutin oratory from the most powerful leader in the world. For sure, there was the soaring promise:

The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

But what struck me more was the sense of the ultimate pragmatist CEO, impatient to fix what he sees as broken:

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

I was still learning to love him. Obviously I was delighted that he had been elected, but I have always been a Hillary fan. Somewhere there’s an alternate universe where we are now at the end of Obama’s first term as 45th President with her having been the 44th. That would have been a lot better.
Obama was just starting to inspire me. His inaugural speech certainly made me warm to him more as I wrote on my own blog.

Obama’s speech still had the idealism and the confidence that we have come to expect from him, but this was tempered with sobering realism and a call to all Americans to give of their best to deal with the unprecedented challenges ahead.

You could actually see George W Bush squirming as his legacy was laid bare in a few well chosen, but very frank words. “Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. 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 adversaries and threaten our planet”

There were two phrases that I thought were the signs of the new age. “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” So it’s goodbye Guantanamo. The poisonous vernacular of the war on terror is replaced with “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Well, I loved it.

And if this is true, then bring it on: “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect.” I hope Israel was listening and will be made to think about the way it consumes the resources of the middle east. It would be good if clean waters flowed in Gaza.

Another theme of the speech was personal responsibility, and embracing your duties as a citizen to help the nation succeed. “For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”

The two things I really loved most of all about the speech was the inclusion of non-believers in the list of value systems at one point and the addition of curiosity as one of the “values on which our success depends.” I like the willingness to abandon conventions as novel solutions are sought for challenges.

Back then, there was a real sense of hope. 12 years on, thanks to the rise of populism and nationalism,  the world has been damaged beyond recognition. I’m now feeling more of a desperate relief that things might just start to get better. We have so many battles ahead and the one against the lethal virus is probably one of the easier ones to win. The path to the fair, free and open society that we look for in our constitution seems longer and strewn with obstacles than ever before. It’s going to be an exhausting and gruelling road ahead.

Speeches like Obama’s help provide us with energy and inspiration to help us. He wasn’t able to achieve everything he wanted and that was not all his fault. But he can’t be blamed for lack of effort or sense of mission.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • John Marriott 10th Jan '21 - 4:06pm

    And what a disappointment Obama turned out to be. Fine words, yes, but action stymied by an out of date political system, designed in a time when what amounted to the USA was a bit player on what was the world stage, which never really evolved to buttress the rôle it undertook after WW2.

    Did he challenge it and the globalisation that maintained it in a kind of numbing aspic? Not really; he just dropped the ball and Trump grabbed it and ran with it. It’s not words that we need, it’s ACTION. There are a lot of nasty people out there and they haven’t gone away.

  • Thank you, Caron. What contrast between the elegant dignified intelligent Obama and the Trump. Four rows back is the late Senator John McCain smiling and applauding his opponent.

    By lucky choice my wife and I were in Washington when Obama’s victory was announced. The city throbbed with joy and happiness, and next day we stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr Martin Luther King had proclaimed, ‘I have a dream’ in August, 1963.

    Martin Luther King Jr. ‘I have a dream’ speech – YouTubewww.youtube.com › watch
    Video for luther king i have a dream
    A look back on Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a dream speech from August 28, 1963.
    5 Jan 2017 · Uploaded by NJ.com

    Also, may I add a spine tingling inaugural speech from my teenage years – when Jack Kennedy was inaugurated in 1960. He spoke of fighting poverty, still with us, but a clarion call to which Liberal Democrats should respond today.

    John F. Kennedy — Inaugural Address – American Rhetoricwww.americanrhetoric.com › speeches › jfkinaugural
    Video for kennedy inauguration speech
    We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place …
    1 Feb 2001 · Uploaded by Educational Video Group

  • Steve Trevethan 10th Jan '21 - 7:12pm

    Inaugural speeches are a form of theory.

    As Yogi Berra may have said, “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”

    Mr Obama’s presidential actions do not, at least to some, match well with his oratorical theory, in both foreign and domestic affairs.

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