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					Washington, D.C., January 21, 2009

A Defining Moment – Barack Obama’s
Inaugural Speech
By Reinhard Bütikofer

                                         At his inauguration, the new U.S. President Barack
                                         Obama gave an impressive speech. Some phrases
                                         he chose might become proverbial. But beyond the
                                         rhetorical brilliance, Obama’s speech got its power
                                         from aiming at nothing less than a renewal of the
promise of democracy in America. Obama did not quote President Lincoln’s famous words from
the Gettysburg Address: “government of the people, for the people, by the people“. But in front
of over one million people Obama appealed to the inherent power of this ideal.

To participate in the inauguration at the bottom of Capitol Hill and to be able to get at least a few
long-distance looks at the podium at which Obama spoke, we had to get an early start. In honor
of this special day the African-American bus driver to the Metro station in a Washington suburb
let us ride without having to pay the fare. Metro was already very crowded before six a.m. A
large area of streets around the Capitol had been closed for pedestrians. And the crowd quickly
backed up. Wherever I got in line, there were thousands of people, all with purple access
tickets, who waited for many hours. Some sent SMSs to a number provided by Obama’s
people to find out why things were not moving along, and read aloud the soothing answers they
received. After waiting in the cold for four and a half hours I was finally “in”.

The crowd’s mood was expectant; they were ready to be thrilled with what most people could
only view on giant TV screens. Bill Clinton is announced – big applause. Laura Bush and Lynn
Cheney are greeted with calls: “And good bye, folks!“ When George W. Bush and Dick Cheney
appear in person the shouting gets louder: “No!“ An older woman says indignantly: “This won’t
do, you can’t disrespect the President.“ Others call: “Let’s throw shoes!“

Smart Choices, Strong Words

When Rick Warren, the controversial conservative pastor from a Californian parish, gives the
invocation, it becomes apparent that this choice by Obama was smart. Warren says that Martin
Luther King would probably be rejoicing in heaven over the election of an African-American
President. Warren emphasizes that America is unified by fighting for liberty and justice for all,
not by religion, or family background, or race. He calls on all Americans to stand together - this
is what really matters to the President: That a conservative broadcasts this message to the 46
percent of Republican voters who did not vote for Obama. Because there is a real danger that
Obama’s agenda might run into major roadblocks of the right. Obama has decided to counter
this danger by a strategy of embrace, not by open confrontation. This is the reason for Rick

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Warren. This is why there was a luncheon with leading conservative journalists in the week
before the inauguration, about which one of the participants said afterwards that they discussed
more substance with Obama in the course of the lunch than with Bush in the course of years.
This is why there was a dinner in honor of John McCain, Obama’s opponent, on the eve of the
inauguration, although Sarah Palin had not been invited – friendship does not go quite that far.

When Barack Obama gives his address after being sworn in by the Chief Justice of the
Supreme Court, after just a few sentences he addresses the crises being experienced by the
United States. Obama immediately puts down a marker. The gathering clouds and raging
storms are not the work of individuals who want to do evil, who are greedy and irresponsible,
but are also the result of “our errors” of not having promptly recognized the signs of the time and
not having acted appropriately and sustainably. In describing the external threats Obama avoids
the term “terrorism“. Also, Obama does not use his time to chastise the banks or their
managers. He does not want to mobilize people by giving the impression to his listeners of
being on the righteous side facing enemies. He wants to have people reach the understanding
that “we, the people” have to take a new approach. Obama attacks the sense of defeat that
accepts decline as inevitable. His message is: We, the people, can meet the challenges if we
place hope over fear, and unity of purpose over discord.

Moving Beyond Dogmatic Trench Warfare

Obama’s second argument is that in order to move ahead again we must overcome the futile
and wasteful dogmatic trench warfare of the past. There is more behind this than a centrist
sensibility. Obama names some of the ideological fronts. And he gets quite poignant here. He
calls the dispute about “big government“ or “small government“ “childish”. He easily dismisses
the entire ideology which has been dominant since Ronald Reagan – the less state there is, the
better – and its left-wing statist counterpart in one sentence. What is important, he says, is that
the government works. Obama also wants to leave behind the argument over the m arket
economy. We must not leave the market, in spite of its creativity, to itself because then it might
get out of control. These principles represent truly a sea change. Reagan is out, Roosevelt is in
again. It is a fundamental turn to the left, which, out of a sense of caution, is explicitly presented
in pragmatic terms. But the fights for it will be fierce. In spite of all his talk of reconciliation
Obama probably has no illusions about it. Resistance will be offered not only by Republicans
but also by conservative Democrats, the so-called “Blue Dogs“. As his approach shows, Obama
has obviously learned some lessons from Reagan like he also learned from Bush’s decline. The
former was successful, among other things, because he was able to sell his own ideology as
pragmatic-plausible common sense. The latter failed, among other things, because his ideology
revealed itself as fanaticism. Obama will try to avoid everything that might lead him into the trap
of a new fanaticism. But he definitely wants fundamental change.

Obama explicitly deals with those who argue that you must not tackle too many big challenges
all at once. He scolds the cynics. (I have to think of the Chancellor who relegates climate
change again to secondary rank because of the financial and economic crisis.) Obama says:
“We do not have too many big plans. (…) The ground has shifted beneath us.“ Only he who

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aims at a fundamental renewal in many areas is acting responsibly. “Be realistic, demand the
impossible“, was the demand of the Spontis 40 years ago. Obama translates this into a
generally comprehensible language and sets the sights for his Administration high: “We must
dust ourselves off and ‚remake’ America.“ “Renewal“ would be too weak a translation for the
word “remake“. “Re-inventing” is not meant either. Perhaps we could put it like this: We have to
let America grow up anew from its roots.

An Appeal to Classical American Values

Obama openly appeals to classical American values. The challenges may be new and also the
methods to master them; but the old values apply. And precisely at this point, where values are
at issue, there is the sharpest differentiation from Bush – without mentioning him by name. The
point here is “to re-establish the vital trust between a people and their government”.
Tremendous cheers rise from the listeners! It would be “false to choose between our safety and
our ideals“. A line that will live on! Even more cheers! This encompasses everything,
Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and illegal listening programs - and so on. This is one of the
emotional highlights of the speech.

Obama also promises a new direction in foreign policy. Fascism and communism, he reminds
us, have been defeated not only by military superiority. And he draws the conclusion: “Our
security emanates from the justness of our cause.“ Without questioning in any way a very robust
military side of foreign policy Obama places the accent differently. Bill Clinton had said it well
during the Democratic Party convention in Denver. What has to count is “the power of our
example, not the example of our power“. The four foreign policy topics that are mentioned are
Iraq, Afghanistan, disarmament, and climate change. There is no specific mention of Europe.
Even with this new President Europe will have to learn that it will be relevant to U.S. foreign
policy only to the degree to which it will show its ability to contribute more than words to meeting
global challenges. However, Obama explicitly addresses the Islamic world and offers it a path
forward “based on mutual interests and mutual respect“. There is brief mention made of “the
suffering outside our borders” and the thoughtless use of natural resources which must not be
ignored any longer. Obama does not announce any initiatives in this speech; he calls for, and
promises, a new U.S. attitude in foreign policy: America as partner. This will not be easy but it is
a great promise for all friends of America and the greatest imaginable challenge to all its

Finally, President Obama returns to the theme which candidate Obama had preached for two
years during the campaign. It is the theme of responsibility of all citizens for themselves, their
society, their government, and their world. How often had Obama said in speeches that the
hope for change was based on having many people become involved. This has especially
appealed to young people. Now that it is time to govern, he articulates the same message in
terms of responsibility. He calls for a “new era of responsibility“. “Ultimately“ it depends on the
people. He appeals to a “spirit of service“, to finding meaning in something greater than oneself.
“This moment will define a generation“, Obama says. That is his hope.

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After the inauguration had come to an end, there was one more especially strong round of
applause. It was for the images of Ex-President Bush, who got on a helicopter on his way to
Texas. When the helicopter flew over the crowd there was a tremendous cheer: We finally are
rid of him.

After the speech the mood is joyful on the streets. The reactions are varied. Two men show a
banner with the writing “We have overcome“. One man sells T-shirts with the slogan:
“Everything’s better with Obama“. An acquaintance says: “Poor Obama. Tomorrow morning, he
must get up and do something“. Obama will have his first meetings with his military and security

                               Reinhard Bütikofer was one of two national chairpersons
                               of the German political party Alliance 90/the Greens..

                               See also the homepage of Reinhard Bütikofer

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