On the evening of the inauguration of her husband to the Presidency, Jackie Kennedy looked out a White House window at the beautiful scene of the South Lawn, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial and said, “So this is the view for which these men fight so hard.”
Through America’s decades, men and women have campaigned for the Presidency because of their desire to hold the most important of elected offices. Beyond that, their personal reasons to occupy the Oval Office range from obsession to generosity. We have trusted that each president has had as his primary purpose improving the lives of the citizenry and moving the nation further along the road of achieving its promises of enlightenment, leadership and freedom.
President Obama, in an inaugural address all but void of the eloquent rhetoric that marked his campaign speeches, was all business as he spoke of humility, gratitude and mindfulness. He referred to this time as “a moment that will define a generation.” The President assumes his duties during one of the nation’s most difficult times; not only because of our costly foreign entanglements and severe economic difficulties, but also because we are a people in deficit of trust and consciousness in both self and community.
During my lifetime only five presidents have come to office with a mandate and soaring public expectations: Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, Johnson and Clinton. Of those only Roosevelt both understood and was willing to utilize the full measure of organized community—that is, government—in the effort to right the ship of state and create a social compact among the people. The others were either denied or failed. John Kennedy was cut short. Lyndon Johnson’s presidency was destroyed by an unnecessary, unwinable war. Ronald Reagan condemned the very government he led. Bill Clinton all but abandoned the promise of progressive policy.
President Obama, too, has been elected with a strong mandate. It is now for him and his close advisors to determine the correct course and then lead… boldly. He must create the reality of peace, equity, and environmental sanity. To once again convince Americans that government can be the productive instrument of a free people, President Obama and the Congress must create solutions as big as our problems. He must forcefully remind us that the greatness of America lies not in the glitter of our wealth nor in the policy demands of the power elite but rather in the splendor of our ideals and the inherent genius of the common people.
It will be for Obama to convince us to reject the I-meism of the 1980s which encouraged us to determine success by asking “Am I better off than I was four years ago?” and to set aside the selfishness inherent in the “ownership society” of the disastrous past eight years. In place of those failures, Obama must replant the seeds of sharing, compassion, and investment in our neighbors and our nation. Put more simply: reform of health care and education, addressing income inequities, and vigorously responding to the disastrous effects of global warming.
During the general election campaign, it was women and young adults who best understood the promise of Barack Obama and who, in their majority, elected him. He should now engage them in particular in expanding America’s sphere of influence around the world. His greatest ally in that effort will be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy predicted that America would elect a black person as president. Well, just on time, forty years later, here we are. Barack Obama has taken the oath of office standing just outside the U.S. Capitol, a building built by black slaves. Indeed this is a time of renewal and change.