President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech was an inspiring call to national service. But you have to read it closely.
The words were challenging: “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.”
The cynics in the financial markets listened—and dumped stocks. The stock market tumbled by more than 300 points during the inaugural and the big banks continued to flirt with collapse. As everyone—including Obama—knows, it will take more than a great speech to cure the ills of a country drained by the Iraq war, sickened by inadequate health care and victimized by a deregulated financial system.
Obama’s analysis of what’s wrong was correct: “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.”
His prescription for the nation’s ills was also on target: “The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act—not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.”
This was the part that tells us, however obliquely, how we can serve. It won’t be easy.
Each task will require hard-slogging work by Americans who grew cynical about politics during the Bush years and even the Clinton era. For example, building roads, bridges, electric grids and digital lines usually falls into the hands of pork-barreling state and local politicians and corporate lobbyists who pay off these elected officials with campaign contributions.
This is not big news to ground-level activists who have tried to fight City Hall. But it may be news to those of you who have spent the last eight years on the less tedious jobs of waging culture wars and cursing George Bush. All of you will have to get together and prevent the stiffs in your statehouses and city halls from wrecking Obama’s construction program. You’ll have to raise hell at a lot of boring meetings, send many e-mails and text messages, post Twitter entries, demonstrate and raise money to throw out politicians who expect to do business as usual.
You grass-roots Obama folks from the presidential campaign know what I’m talking about. Keep it up. Now that Obama has won, you can’t forget about politics until the next election. Your job isn’t done.
Yes, we can restore science to its rightful place, as Obama said. Here’s what you can do about it. Work to defeat those far-right politicians who have blocked stem cell research. Pay more taxes to support your state universities, community colleges, high schools and grade schools. And don’t whine about it. Throw out the politicians who are starving the schools. As Obama said, “… our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions—that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of rebuilding America.”
Yet there’s more to rebuilding America. Obama must pull us out of Iraq, restore constitutional rights and figure out a way of avoiding an Afghanistan quagmire.
And he must tackle the complex interaction between race and poverty. People of color are bearing a heavier burden of the recession than whites.
Obama touched on race in his speech, noting that “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”
I wish he had said more about race. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed the issue better on Aug. 28, 1963, in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial, down the Mall from where Obama spoke on Inauguration Day.
“In a sense,” King said, “we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”
The note is still due, and paying it off is another huge task for President Obama and the rest of the country.