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Democracy Works?

It’s Wednesday, January 21, 2009, and it looks like Barack Obama is still president, so I guess this dream will last a while.

Some commentators are calling the speech he gave yesterday a “repudiation” of the failed policies of the last eight years. It was a “muscular,” “stern” and morally uncompromising speech, laying out a vision of society and of government that is quite at odds with that of his predecessors, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

For me, the strongest moments of the speech came when he addressed the world, and simultaneously talked about the Constitutional limits on power that bind any American administration.

    We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity….
    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….
    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…. To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders….

What I take from these words is that Obama believes that Americans are all guaranteed the same liberties, but we are also bound to each other by our responsibilities before the law. This is already a repudiation of the Bush-Cheney doctrine claiming that the president has the power to make his own rules in wartime. But he didn’t stop there; he also bound American power to those same limits when dealing with those outside our borders. Few Americans would have required such words of him on a day set aside to celebrate his long-awaited acession to power. It remains to be seen how these ideals will translate into policy, but to me, these words reaffirm my optimism about the kind of man Obama is.

I think his background has led him to feel lucky that he was born an American, rather than giving him a sense of entitlement simply because he is an American. This simple nuance makes all the difference. He said it himself in these words, “In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned.” In dealing with those outside our borders, those who may share our aspirations but not the blind luck of being born in a nation whose power has mounted steadily for 200 years, will we treat them as partners or adversaries? Will we listen, or pretend they don’t exist? For me, this is the crucial test for any American leader. History will be the judge, but I remain hopeful that Obama will pass this test.

UPDATE: Go here to sign a petition inviting President Obama to speak in Morocco.

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