NEWS ANALYIS: Obama Urges Middle Class-Based Prosperity

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2013 Presidential Inauguration of Barack Obama | Credit: Wikimedia CommonsBy Ernest Corea*

WASHINGTON DC – A 19-year-old single mother captured the spirit of hope and change that animated candidate Barack Hussein Obama’s first presidential election campaign with this text message: “Rosa sat, so Martin could walk; Martin walked so Obama could run; Obama is running so our children can fly.” Khari Mosley, a leader of the Democratic Party in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania cited the comment in a newspaper article and it re-surfaced in 2013, reaffirming the sentiments of “hope and change” that helped to propel Obama to the pinnacle of political power in the US.

Now, the crowds who attended Obama’s second inauguration have left town. The celebratory “balls” have ended. Traffic flow in the city is back to almost normal. Public attention has turned to workaday matters, such as an impending snowfall. The young mother’s words will, however, continue to energise “we the people” together with the connected and the inspiring promise of these words from Obama’s assertive Inaugural Address that captured the core of his message:

“We, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

Great Affection

Despite the weary pessimism of political soothsayers who speculated that there would be little enthusiasm, and only a smattering of a crowd at Obama’s second inauguration on January 21, 2013, “we the people” joined in the event with fervour – and in large numbers.

Sure, the crowd was smaller than the massive record-breaking multitude of 2009, when Obama was inaugurated as the country’s first African-American president, but it was enormous nevertheless. Unofficial estimates placed it at a million. (Official estimates of the numbers attending such events are not announced.)

From the patience of men, women, and children who turned up as early as they could and lined up to enter the area demarcated for the event, their festive flag waving, their effervescent mood, and their boisterous response to many of Obama’s key words and phrases, there could be no doubt that they continued to hold him in the highest regard – and in great affection. Time after time, reporters who asked out-of-town visitors in the crowd what made them travel to the inauguration, the answer was “because we love the man.”

Every inch of Washington’s sprawling national mall was packed. It was a formidable spectacle, enough to impress even the blasé. “No-drama Obama” was clearly moved by this outpouring of personal and political support. When leaving the outdoor ceremony at its conclusion, he stopped at the entrance to the congressional building (the Capitol), turned around, looked at the flag waving, hollering crowd, and said: “I want to take another look, one more time. I’m not going to see this again.” Indeed, he won’t, not as a newly inaugurated president. He is bound by the principle and practice of “term limits.”

The more important issue is: How strong will be the influence of what he said to the crowd and the audience beyond in four years or more? How much of the promise of his lofty Inaugural Address will be fulfilled? Those are questions for historians to answer…and many will. Even now, the historic nature of his second inauguration is a fact, and the potential impact of Obama’s “second presidency” is beginning to emerge.

Money Flowed

Next to Obama’s supporters, nobody was more affected by his victory at the presidential election of November 6, 2012 than his detractors in the Republican Party. Many of them had participated in the election campaign against Obama, directly or indirectly. And what a campaign it was, with weasel words, dog whistle phrases, and barely concealed prejudice in the mix.  Money flowed in a tidal bore against him. That he prevailed nevertheless, much to the surprise of his opponents, is in itself historic.

Equally historic is the combined and successful effort of “we the people” to beat back the onslaught unleashed against them. Numerous laws were adopted in state legislatures under Republican control to inconvenience elderly and less mobile voters, who were considered to be Obama supporters. Who is the 90-year-old who can readily produce documents as proof of his citizenship? Laws inconveniencing “we the people” were clearly a form of voter suppression.

At the same time, efforts to intimidate women voters, scare off African Americans and other minorities from voting, and generally make a mockery of the electoral process multiplied. The result of all this trickery turned out to be the opposite of what was intended. Instead of being scared off, the intended victims of laws and malpractices combined in coalitions of voters that carried Obama to victory: 94 percent of African-American voters, 71 percent of Hispanics, and 55 percent of women voted for Obama. Unmarried women gave Obama a 38 percent margin over his opponent.

Thus, Obama was rewarded with two historic elections. The first (2008) was historic per se in bringing an African American into the White House. The second was historic for being the first time that an African-American was re-elected to the presidency. It was historic, as well, given all the forces and resources arrayed against Obama and his supporters that “we the people” prevailed.

So it should come as no surprise that history figured both directly and indirectly in his Inauguration.

Due Homage

In 1963, a member of a white supremacist group murdered Medgar Evers, a Mississippi civil rights activist, 38-years old at the time of his death. He was gunned down on the driveway in his own home. By a cruel irony, the murder was committed on the same day that President John F. Kennedy delivered a stirring civil rights speech.

In 2013, 50 years since the Evers assassination, his wife Myrlie Evers-Williams, a past chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and an iconic figure in the civil rights movement, delivered the Invocation at Obama’s second inauguration. She was the first lay person entrusted with this responsibility. The honored place given to Myrlie Evers could not resurrect her husband but it paid memorable homage to his life’s work.

In solemn tones, she said:

“As we sing the words of belief, ‘this is my country,’ let us act upon the meaning that everyone is included. May the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of every woman, man, boy and girl be honored. May all your people, especially the least of these, flourish in our blessed nation. One hundred fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years after the March on Washington, we celebrate the spirit of our ancestors, which has allowed us to move from a nation of unborn hopes and a history of disenfranchised (votes) to today’s expression of a more perfect union. We ask, too, Almighty that where our paths seem blanketed by throngs of oppression and riddled by pangs of despair we ask for your guidance toward the light of deliverance. And that the vision of those that came before us and dreamed of this day, that we recognize that their visions still inspire us.”

Her theme of diversity was consistent with two other historic events, both of which she mentioned: The Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln 150 years, and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom led by Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) 50 years ago. January 21 is, in fact, MLK Day, so it was appropriate that Obama’s Address included an inspiring reference to the assassinated civil rights leader. This is also the 40th anniversary of the “Roe v Wade” judicial decision which declared abortions to be legal in the US.

In the context of these events melding, as part of the Inauguration’s background, nobody should be surprised that Obama chose to intertwine civil rights in this all-encompassing statement:

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls (where a women’s rights convention was organised by women in 1848), and Selma (the scene of civil rights battles), and Stonewall (where gays fought back against police oppression in 1969); just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”

Obama was direct and unambiguous, in dealing with social and economic rights including equal pay for men and women, equal treatment under the laws for all gays, protecting voting rights and clamping down on voter suppression, and compassionate immigration reform. (He is expected to announce an immigration initiative in a matter of days.) He emphasized his policy of ending senseless wars, and committed himself to a foreign policy of engagement. He dealt with climate change, personal and national security, and the dangers of absolutism.

Moving On – Or Not

Ideas, however noble; words, however well chosen; rhetoric, however well used; and proposals, however elegantly crafted; do not of themselves, separately or in combination, create instant effectiveness. That requires collaboration between those selected by the people to manage the country’s affairs and their opponents in transforming words into deeds. “We must act,” as Obama has often said.

Can action take place against the push of obstructionism? Voters looking for Obama’s Inaugural Address to influence at least some of those who have been obdurate in opposing his every move will no doubt find solace in the fact that shortly after Obama spoke, Republicans in the House of Representatives acted. They “passed legislation to suspend the nation’s statutory borrowing limit for three months, without including the dollar-for-dollar spending cuts that Republicans once insisted would have to be part of any debt limit bill,” as the New York Times reported

Unfortunately, in other situations, Republicans were less conciliatory. Some party leaders appeared to cower in fear and shudder in anger.

Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehnor lamented that the main focus of the Obama administration is “to annihilate the Republican Party.” To avoid any ambiguity, he added: “And let me just tell you, I do believe that is their goal – to just shove us into the dustbin of history.”

Over in the supposedly more sober Upper House, Senator Mitch McConnell, commenting on the inaugural address, said: “It was basically a liberal agenda directed at an America that we still believe is centre-right, and I don’t think that’s a great way to start off the second term if your idea here is to achieve bipartisan solutions.” Yes, that’s the same McConnell who said early in Obama’s first term that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Fear and its companion, anger, evoke the damnedest sentiments. [IDN-InDepthNews – January 26, 2013]

*The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is Global Editor of and Editorial Adviser to IDN-InDepthNews as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.

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