Obama's call to remake America


A MESSAGE OF determined realism pervaded President Barack Obama’s strong inaugural speech yesterday. Acknowledging fully the serious challenges facing the United States he said they will not be met easily or in a short space of time, but will be met in a spirit of unity. The extraordinary turnout of millions in Washington to witness the occasion gives credibility to the solemn commitment he put at the core of the speech that “starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America”.

A watching world also hopes this will be so and that his leadership can inspire the effort, from which all can benefit. Mr Obama acknowledged that “the world has changed, and we must change with it”. He advised other prosperous nations like the US “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”. The stress on his nation’s “patchwork heritage”, drawing on influences from all around the world, along with his willingness to extend a hand to enemies “if you are willing to unclench your fist” show he realises political instability and environmental degradation will surely follow a failure to act on these principles. And following hard on George Bush it was welcome to hear Mr Obama say “our power alone cannot protect us, and nor does it entitle us to do as we please”.

In no sphere is political action more pressing and expected than the economic crisis facing his country and the rest of the world. He linked that problem directly to other social failures, in housing, employment, health- care, education and profligate use of energy. But in refusing to accept American decline is inevitable or that the next generation must lower its sights Mr Obama signalled he will lead a determined effort to seek economic renewal. A note of pragmatism echoing Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s was sounded in his warning that the criterion for judging public programmes is whether they work and that markets must be carefully watched to prevent them spilling out of control.

Missing from this speech was the vaulting can-do rhetoric of his most memorable campaigning occasions. It drew more on tropes from the American mainstream, while continually emphasising they must be reworked and renewed while drawing still on older values. This was a skilful reordering of his priorities as he makes the transition into direct presidential authority. His political desire to bring that mainstream along with him through bipartisan initiatives and by preserving an abundant cross-party political capital as long as he can is sensible and realistic. The great crowd in Washington mall will probably extend their patience to him in the same spirit.

Mr Obama faces a tremendously difficult task in remaking America. He must now demonstrate a quite different quality of leadership and the ability to use limited and depleting resources as he goes about it. But few presidents have started out with more public goodwill at home and abroad.