Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009
Obama Promises New Destiny, Work Begins Today
By JOE KLEIN
"I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear ..." Well, nothing was more stunning and cathartic than those few words. Not the remarkable American diorama — in all its polychromatic wonder — spread out for miles on the National Mall in Washington. Not the clear, sober cadences of our new President's Inaugural Address. Not the prayers and tears, the unstoppable smiles and barely controlled giddiness of what may have been the happiest crowd ever to grace the nation's capital. A man named Barack Hussein Obama is now the President of the United States. He came to us as the ultimate outsider in a nation of outsiders — the son of an African visitor and a white woman from Kansas — and he has turned us inside out. That he leads us now is a breathtaking statement of American open-mindedness and, yes, our native liberality. Even before his first act as President, and no matter how he fares in the office, he stands as a singular event in our history.
And let it be recorded that Obama's first act as President was to correct Chief Justice John Roberts, who managed somehow to mangle the 35-word oath of office, misplacing the word faithfully, as in "faithfully execute the office of President ..." Roberts then mangled it a second time, Obama raised an eyebrow, and Roberts moved on, a bumpy beginning and something of a metaphor: one of the new President's functions will be to correct the mistakes of George W. Bush's benighted tenure. Obama made that very clear in his sharply worded address, which contained few catchphrases for the history books but did lay out a coherent and unflinching philosophy of government. Nearly 30 years after Ronald Reagan heralded the onset of his conservative age by saying "Government is the problem," Obama announced the arrival of a prudent new liberalism: "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified." Conservatives assume such tasks — employment, health care, retirement — are the province of the market. We have had 30 years of paeans to the wonders of free enterprise, but Obama made it clear that markets are not an unalloyed good: "This crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous." (See pictures of Barack Obama's campaign behind the scenes.)
Overseas, the President announced another clean break with the Bush Administration on foreign policy. Summoning the wisdom of "earlier generations," he said, "They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please." Take that, Dick Cheney — who exited the scene in a wheelchair, looking grim, as if he were about to foreclose on someone. Obama piled on several foreign policy zingers when he denounced the "false ... choice between our safety and our ideals" — a reference to Bush's harsh treatment of prisoners — and in his message to the world: "We are ready to lead once more."
But the tone of the speech was not defiant or angry or celebratory for that matter. It was resolute, suffused with sobriety, reflecting a tough-minded realism at home and abroad. Obama made clear that his domestic liberalism would be enacted conservatively. Where government programs can help, he said, "we intend to move forward." If they are useless or outdated, "programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits and do our business in the light of day." Overseas, he warned, "those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents ... You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."
Note the simplicity of the words. This is a different Obama from the one who, full of himself last winter, filled his speeches with gaseous oratory like "We are the ones we've been waiting for." The personal transformation has been gradual, subtle — and the words have grown simpler as the economy collapsed and the full weight of office began to press in on him. The preternatural calm that seemed an attractive part of his personality during the primaries became his dominant trait in the general election — and the defining principle of his transition. He seems, in the modesty of his rhetoric, to have embarked on a rather bold experiment. "This is going to be a general principle of governing," he told CNN's John King. "No spin, play it straight, describe to the American people the state that we're in." (See pictures behind the scenes of Obama's inauguration.)
And that was the oddest aspect of Obama's transition, the lack of pomp and bombast to it. He rarely used the word "I"; he addressed the nation as a community of mature adults. He was all modesty; he asked for better ideas for his monumental stimulus plan (and quickly acceded to Democratic demands that he remove some of the tax breaks for small businesses). He seemed, at every turn, to predict that he would make mistakes; he did so once more at the congressional lunch immediately after he was sworn in. The cumulative effort of this behavior has been to convey a sense of seriousness — not just in his own personal aspect but also in the work of his team. In gestation, this was an Administration marked by attention to detail and a deep appreciation of the intricacies of governance.
In the midst of the transition, President Obama was faced with a telling policy choice: whether to declare a temporary sales-tax holiday. His economic advisers loved the idea. It would provide immediate consumer stimulus, a direct jolt that might unclog the commercial arteries. The money could be easily passed from the Federal Government to the states, which administer sales taxes. But Obama resisted and finally rejected the idea. "He thought it would provide a temporary benefit, that it had no substantial or lasting policy impact," a senior transition adviser told me. "I think he was remembering the campaign, when Hillary and McCain favored the gas-tax holiday, which he thought was frivolous, and he opposed it for that very reason — if we're going to spend money, let's spend it on investments that will make us stronger in the future."
See pictures of Obama's historic Inauguration.
See TIME's Person of the Year: Barack Obama.
Actually, Obama was resisting in the name of balance: the bulk of his proposed stimulus package will probably go to short-term fixes — his promised $300 billion in tax breaks for the middle class, $200 billion in aid to cities and states, benefits for the poor and unemployed. Even so, aides say, most of Obama's attention has been focused elsewhere — on the long-term stimulus projects, the larger transformations in the economy, the health-care system and foreign policy. Quietly, the Obama transition team reviewed every government agency "to find out which specific programs were working and which weren't." It was a terrifyingly brisk and comprehensive process, especially compared with the dust storm produced by the last Democratic President, Bill Clinton, during his chaotic transition period. "During Clinton's transition, you had all these people writing ad hoc papers about what to do at this agency or how to deal with that policy, but that was an extension of how Clinton's mind works," says one of the many Obama aides who is a veteran of the Clinton Administration. "Clinton had this great horizontal intelligence. He could pull an idea from a meeting he had in northern Italy and apply it to spreading broadband service through Iowa. It was amazing but not exactly efficient. Obama is more vertical. He pushes the process along, streamlines it. We had one 25-to-50-page policy paper for every agency."
Well, that's Democrats for you. It's hard to imagine any Republican President since Reagan wanting to rummage through all that paper, or being fastidious enough to care about the strengths and weaknesses of every federal agency. If government was the problem, as Reagan suggested, the solution, theoretically, was less of it — and since reducing government proved impossible, as opposed to reducing taxes, there didn't seem to be all that much interest in actually making it work more efficiently. By contrast, Obama and his eclectic team of appointees give the impression of being positively intoxicated by the prospect of figuring out how everything works. Obama's closest aides like to say he isn't a "wonk" like Clinton, immersed in policy details to the point of immobility, but clearly the new President has a breadth and depth of policy interests, especially in comparison with his immediate predecessor. (See the best of the Obama Inaugural merchandise.)
In some ways, the most surprising of his appointments — Hillary Clinton, the new Secretary of State — has emerged as an exemplar of Obamism. At her confirmation hearing, Clinton seemed completely prepared on every imaginable topic, orderly, undramatic and yet willing to propose some radical changes in the State Department's structure. She seems intent on tilting the department away from its stultifying bureaucratic orthodoxies and toward solving specific problems. To do so, she will appoint no fewer than five, and perhaps more, high-profile special envoys who will do the heavy lifting and share her spotlight on the most vexing foreign policy problems — former Senator George Mitchell to calm down the Middle East, Richard Holbrooke to deal with the Afghanistan-Pakistan nexus and others for Iran, North Korea, the global-climate-change treaty negotiations and possibly another for the ever forgotten neighbors to our south. (See pictures of heartbreak in the Middle East.)
Clinton, who can be spiky, has re-emerged as a natural diplomat. When she heard that Holbrooke and General David Petraeus had never met, she invited them over to her Washington home on a Friday night before the Inauguration. The two men spent two hours in front of a roaring fire with Clinton, getting to know each other, talking about the diplomatic and military division of labor in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Clinton's was an Obamian gesture — enticing the lion to lie down with the lion — the sort of attention to detail that seems to have been replicated across the policymaking spectrum during the Obama transition.
It will be domestic, not foreign, policy that will occupy the President's attention for the next few months. The first order of business will be to shepherd the $825 billion stimulus package through Congress and ride herd on the additional $350 billion available to stabilize the banks. But the goal is to press an ambitious series of actions — policies that might have seemed impossible before the financial crash — across the board as quickly as possible. The quest for a national health-insurance system will debut with a major conference, bringing all the various players — including corporate America and the insurance companies to the table in late winter or early spring. The hope is that a bill to provide universal access, as promised during the campaign, will nudge its way through Congress by next fall. Also coming in the first half of the year will be a comprehensive environmental policy, including some tough decisions on how to go about reducing carbon emissions. If Obama can accomplish any one of these, he will surprise a great many Washington skeptics.
In the latter days of the transition, there seemed an inclination to delay some of the splashy foreign trips that will, in the end, be among the most memorable moments of the Obama presidency. The President will go to the next G-20 meeting on the global economic crisis in Europe in April. The steady pitch of crises and atrocities will demand his attention. There are crucial decisions to be made about the pace of withdrawal from Iraq and how many U.S. troops to add in Afghanistan. (Asked about the persistent reports from the Pentagon that up to 30,000 more troops are scheduled for Afghanistan, a senior Obama aide said, "No — repeat, no — decision has been made about troop levels in Afghanistan, and anyone at the Pentagon who says otherwise should be fired.") But foreign policy developments seem destined to take some time, given the new President's proclivities: there will not be the macho kinetics of the Bush years nor the bang-bang nor the bellicose phrases like axis of evil. Obama was careful to avoid the phrase global war on terror in his Inaugural Address. Instead, there will be a steady drip-drip-drip of diplomacy, especially on neglected issues like nuclear proliferation. Even in the war zones, the Obama Administration will be talking relentlessly — trying to bring the nonextremist Taliban tribes into the Afghan government, trying to establish coalitions of Iraq's and Afghanistan's neighbors (including Iran) to help lower the tensions, hoping the steady accretion of talk and trust will bring the Israelis and Palestinians to a point at which they can begin negotiating a real peace.
See pictures of the rise and fall of the Shah of Iran.
See pictures behind the scenes on Obama's inauguration.
It is likely that when Obama said, "We only have one President at a time" during the transition, he actually meant, "I disagree with George Bush on that one." After all, he wasn't reticent about making his views known on the economic crisis or the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. The breaks with the past will be subtle but emphatic: I suspect an Obama Administration would have voted for the U.N.'s Gaza cease-fire resolution rather than abstaining as Bush's did. But all this will be done diplomatically. American foreign policy will be a direct reflection of the man who is now President — quiet, conciliatory, civilized. (See pictures of Mumbai picking up the pieces.)
Toward the end of the campaign, Michelle Obama asked me if I was going to write a novel about them like Primary Colors, my satiric account of the 1992 presidential race. I was at a loss for words, in part because the thought hadn't even vaguely crossed my mind. "He can't write a novel about us," Barack Obama reassured his wife. "We're too boring."
Yes ... and no. It's hard to call the most exciting politician in decades boring. The millions who trekked to Washington for the Inauguration, who cried their eyes out and cheered their lungs raw, are testimony to the man's sheer inspirational power. Reagan's movement was called a revolution, but this may be more than that — the beginning of a whole new era of Obama-inspired and Obama-led citizen involvement. During the transition, the Obama website called for supporters to hold community meetings to discuss their health-care priorities. A staggering 10,000 meetings purportedly were held; 5,000 sent written reports — more paper! — to the transition office. This is a new kind of politics, with the potential to be the most powerful citizen army in U.S. history. If so, it will more likely be a force for civility — for "boring" things like good governance, for new ideas about how to control the cost of entitlements (which Obama pointedly mentioned in his speech) — rather than a rabble spamming the offices of recalcitrant Republicans. It will fit neatly into the Obama zeitgeist.
By the tone and style of his move to power, Obama has shown the world — and the people living in Sarah Palin's small-town America, and even many liberals who had lost hope over time — a new, gloriously unexpected and vibrant face of our country. The sheer fun of the Inauguration, the world-record number of interracial hugs and kisses, augurs a new heterodox cultural energy, a nation — as the man said — of mutts. Already the Obama ethos is slipping into the nation's cultural bloodstream — not just the interraciality but also the mind-blowing normality of the family: the fact that Michelle Obama brought Laura Bush a going-away present, the fact that Sasha and Malia will make their own beds in the White House, the fact that our President proudly wears a Chicago White Sox baseball cap when he goes to the gym.
Even more important, Obama promises a respite from the nonstop anger of the recent American political wars, the beginning of an era of civility, if not comity. "What the cynics fail to understand," he said in his speech, "is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply."
It would be nice to think the magnitude of the problems facing the nation would lead to a minimum of puerile contentiousness, but vile still seems to be the default position for some of Obama's noisier detractors — "Obama Flubs the Oath" was the inaccurate headline greeting the new President on the Drudge Report. Too many of us in the media remain reluctant "to set aside childish things." Happily, though, our new President seems to have an honest predilection for treating his opponents with respect. He seems intent on hearing their points of view and arguing, decorously, with them — that's why he accepted a dinner invitation at conservative columnist George Will's house. This is radical behavior in the village on the Potomac. It could force everyone to argue more carefully, to think twice before casting aspersions, to remember that the goal has to be more than temporal electoral victories — but, in this moment of peril, a better and stronger nation, a less ugly and dangerous world.
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Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 at 2:15 pm
A National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation
Moments ago, in his first official act since taking the oath of office, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation, calling on Americans to serve one another and our common purpose on this National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation. Check it out below, or read it on the WhiteHouse.gov proclamations page.
NATIONAL DAY OF RENEWAL AND RECONCILIATION, 2009
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BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
As I take the sacred oath of the highest office in the land, I am humbled by the responsibility placed upon my shoulders, renewed by the courage and decency of the American people, and fortified by my faith in an awesome God.
We are in the midst of a season of trial. Our Nation is being tested, and our people know great uncertainty. Yet the story of America is one of renewal in the face of adversity, reconciliation in a time of discord, and we know that there is a purpose for everything under heaven.
On this Inauguration Day, we are reminded that we are heirs to over two centuries of American democracy, and that this legacy is not simply a birthright -- it is a glorious burden. Now it falls to us to come together as a people to carry it forward once more.
So in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, let us remember that: "The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim January 20, 2009, a National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation, and call upon all of our citizens to serve one another and the common purpose of remaking this Nation for our new century.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twentieth day of January, in the year of our Lord two thousand nine, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-third.
Obama's Kenyan relatives head to the US for president's inauguration
by Mnet on Thu 15 Jan 2009 10:40 AM GMT Permanent Link Cosmos
President elect Barack Obama's half-brother Samson Obama is one of several close family members from Kenya headed to the U.S for the presidential inauguration.
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