One of my favorite commentators on leadership, the late John Gardner who founded Common Cause, wrote in his essay No Easy Victories that “Most of all, we need leaders to give us hope…the first and last task of a leader is to keep hope alive.”
In his Inaugural Address on Tuesday, President Barack Obama offered a sober assessment of the current state of the union and world. But he did not wallow in the pits of malaise and discontent. Rather, as a true leader must, he pointed the way toward a more vibrant future. “We gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord,” he declared, “…the time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history…”
In declaring the commencement of “the work of remaking America,” President Obama clearly cut ties with the immediate past while throwing long guide ropes across generations to the “better history” of the American Revolution, the pioneers who settled the West, the struggle to end slavery and emancipate slaves, the Civil Right Movement, the sacrifices of generations of Americans who fought for our freedoms on distant shores, who built a great economy based on honest labor and innovative corporate spirits.
No less a conservative pundit than David Brooks wrote yesterday that Obama’s sense of history and strong desire to unite the nation toward common goals rooted in more traditional national virtues is already rewriting the traditional lines of ideology claimed in the last four decades by liberals and conservatives. Obama seeks to reduce the hard lines of ideology and win-at-all-costs politics in order to bring people together around those actions that will promote the common good. We heard that in his speech yesterday — “…the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”
On the world stage, President Obama reminded today’s nation that “…earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”
He called for an end to old hatreds, for a recognition of our religious and racial diversity as a strength. He reached out in a particular way to Muslims: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
Will he be able to achieve this grand vision? Most commentators today have observed that his speech was flinty, not soaring, even solemn. This is a man determined to reach his destination, and to bring all of us with him. But he was also clear: the journey requires each of us to move along, to “set aside childish things” like (he didn’t say this, but it was implied) trying to make money through schemes, promoting winning at all costs, trampling individual rights in the name of security.
In the most moving passage of his speech, he set for the agenda for every single citizen this way:
“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.“Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.
“What is demanded, then, is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.
“This is the price and the promise of citizenship. This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why 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 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”
Barack Obama became the president of the United States yesterday because of our better history, a history stained with blood and tears from centuries of the struggle for human rights, equality and justice in this nation. We owe the future of this nation no less than to ensure that “we, the people” take his somber message seriously, showing in every day hence the kind of serious commitment to good citizenship that brought millions together yesterday. We are all responsible to collaborate in writing “our better history” for future generations.
What do you think about President Obama’s speech? Please send your comments for publication on this blog. Send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org