President Barack Obama’s inaugural address will rank with Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” as one of the greatest speeches in the English language. He ranged across American history and the dreams of Americans in oratory that soared as high as the eagle and burned with the passion of the black churches.
America the superpower finally has found a commander-in-chief whose charisma and eloquence matches the American soft power that is the greatest in the world.
The handsome young leader showed that a speech could be as stirring as the greatest music – and has the advantage of needing no tune to touch the heart; it can move readers even on the printed page.
This speech will live on the printed page and videos and whatever new devices technology conjures for generations to come.
It began, like Creation, on water. He said:
Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace.
He dwelt on the present troubles and spoke of freedom and equality:
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.
He affirmed the pioneering spirit and the Great American Dream and the sweat and sacrifice it entailed:
In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.
For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.
For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn. Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.
He reminded Americans of the wealth and enterprise they still possess and rightly ridiculed the cynics who question America’s power to sustain big plans. “Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage,” he said.
But his most significant words were as to what constituted success for a nation:
The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart – not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.
A Daniel come to judgment!
I heard the voice of John Kenneth Galbraith, who made the same argument – that the wealth of a nation could not be measured just by its GDP, that what matters is the total population’s well-being and happiness. A fact of life that has been forgotten by many leaders and opinion makers who think the GDP is the index of prosperity even though it can – and does – hide growing income gaps between the rich and the poor in many countries around the world.
Obama spoke of “the tempering qualities of humility and restraint”.
He spoke for diversity and tolerance. Without those, a country would be reduced to a bunch of lemmings.
As he rightly said:
For 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; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.
He was wise to single out the Muslims for special mention, and I say this, though I am not a Muslim.
He deserved cheers, too, for his retort to those who condemn Western values:
To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. 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.
Obama has been praised for his hipness and coolness. But as every baby boomer knows who enjoyed the music of the Beatles as much as the movies of Charlie Chaplin and other silent comedians, hipness or coolness is not staying in sync with the new but an appreciation of the old. An appreciation voiced by Obama:
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, 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.
America’s first African American President appreciates his heritage – not just that of the African Americans but of America as a whole.
America has elected a fitting President.
People speak of how he associates himself with Abraham Lincoln.
But he ended his inaugural address – his first speech as President – by recalling the darkest hour of America’s first President and his men, who suffered unimaginable hardships at Valley Forge and yet prevailed.
He was drawing a parallel with the present. America is in crisis now.
But America will prevail. It has elected a commander-in-chief to match its unrivalled soft power.