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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Anticipation, Relief and Atonement

Normally, inaugurations serve as a mechanism of literally and symbolically passing the baton to a new President. Though the process has (sadly) occasionally taken place under dire, emergency circumstances, it normally comes with a sense of positive anticipation of the future -- anticipation of a chance to continue moving forward with policies that appear to be working or anticipation of a chance to try something else, even if the status quo is good.

The Inauguration of a new President and the peaceful transition of power is perhaps the most majestic "sacrament" of our civic religion and is an awe-inspiring event under any circumstance. However, it is no literary exaggeration to say the Inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America reflected a singular event in the history of the country. The event and the coverage reflected all of the normal forward-looking anticipation of inaugurations that preceded it but that sense of normalcy vanished any time the wide-angle camera views looked down the Mall at miles and millions of citizens packed in to see or hear the event.

The crowd assembled for the Inauguration was stated to be the largest gathering ever held within Washington D.C. -- a city with many opportunities to set records for crowds. Obama's place in history has already been secured by becoming the first African-American President. From the comments of people throughout the country of every race and creed, Obama's second claim on a place in history may arrive twenty two years from now. Tens of millions of children witnessed today's Inauguration and saw every excuse for "won't" or "can't" or "why bother" eliminated in front of their eyes. One young boy interviewed by a reporter in Chicago said words to the effect of this: "He's not Superman, if he can do it, there's no excuse for me not to be able to do it." Note the young boy didn't arrogantly say "if he can get there, I can get there", as though he deserves success. The young boy said "there's no excuse" for him not to achieve his goals. If millions of children truly internalized the example of Obama's achievement, our country has much to hope for in the coming years.

It seems that millions might not have shown up to stand for eight hours in 19 degree weather or watched on TV merely to watch someone eliminate a racial barrier or confirm the possibilities of a new approach to political organization and communication. In very real terms -- with zero exaggeration -- the racial barriers eliminated by Obama's Presidency may not be the largest problem facing the country. Final poll numbers reflected 22 percent approval ratings for the outgoing President at a time of tremendous financial peril. Markets in the US traded down over 4 percent due to continued concern about the stability of banks both in Britain and the United States. Quite frankly, record crowds may have showed up with or without Obama as the star of the show -- simply out of a sense of relief at seeing the arrival of the end of such a disastrous period of leadership that dug the hole in which we now find ourselves.

The Inauguration speech itself was effective at balancing the odd combination of anticipation and relief by bringing in a third dynamic -- one of atonement. Most of the problems we face right now have nothing to do with outside forces, be they Islamic terrorists or low-wage manufacturing in China. Many are stamped "Made in USA" -- crumbling schools, collapsing bridges, inadequate regulation of financial institutions and uncontrolled "entitlement" spending. Normally none of these would constitute existential problems that could threaten the very existence of the country. Unfortunately, our country has not been operating "normally". Primarily because of the ignorance and inattention of We The People, the checks and balances of our government have been tampered with or disabled entirely and allowed what should have been transient problems to mushroom into existential problems. Obama's comments below eloquently identify the flaw in our past thinking and the balance required to correct it:

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What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. 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.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. 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.

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A sense of atonement is very appropriate for a day of transition like January 20, 2009. Our government is US and we have created many of the problems we face. It is now up to us to take responsibility and begin a new effort to correct them.

Perhaps the most fitting part of the entire day was the musical performance of Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, who played an original composition immediately before the new President took the oath of office. The piece was both beautiful and haunting -- a musical metaphor for the civic miracle of a peaceful democratic transition and the challenges facing both the new President and We the People.

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#1) http://cbs4.com/campaign08/inauguration.presidential.address.2.913014.html