The celebration has already begun. Concert orchestras hedge the reflecting pool on the Capitol. Celebrity guests of every walk are addressing the nation. But for all the rejoicing, the next President’s speech must tidy up the remains of the party to drive us toward a single mission. As the economy sputters, and the war in Iraq poses a financial and military quandary of epic proportion, Barack Obama has to confront the hypocrisies of American government. On the one hand, there is always hope for the future in a nation of riches. The poor and suffering lay no claim to the wealth abounding, but the vaunted middle class still maintains ambitions of rising higher and faster.
By pinning his hopes on these ambitions, Obama can appeal to a growing sense of rejuvenation by generation. If the Baby Boomers have passed their time, we need not worry because their grandsons and granddaughters will pick up the slack. Instead of fussing over the particulars of the American Dream (a foreclosed home with a picket fence?), we will be charged with the task of inundating the collective conscious with our ideas and aspirations. More than that, we” have to create the technology and the ideology to prop up a sinking country. Although Barack Obama is a master of the rhetorical gifts afforded him by years of experience, education and pragmatism, he will have to write and deliver one of the most important speeches of his still-young life when he swears in as the 44th President. The trick will be to infuse enough of the campaign trail thrill in us to overpower the potent feeling of gloom that will characterize the next four years. Fortunately, Barack Obama has history on his side, and he is willing to pack common words with uncommon meanings. Here are the six most important words we can expect to hear when he takes the oath of office on Inauguration Day.
6. Dignity – During his rousing campaign, whenever Barack Obama or Joe Biden wanted to rouse the sensibility of the working class, they would mention the “dignity of work.” We’ve been tending to the financiers, academics and marketing geniuses of the world even as the construction workers and plumbers toil for their pay. In truth, there are many more carpenters, school teachers and homemakers than there are Microsoft founders. Somewhere along the way, we designed our tax system to reward the people who do less of the labor and more of the “management” of labor. It has left us feeling cheated as we spy our income tax returns for missing funds. In order to get back on track, Obama advocates that we return to the ideals of hard work, specifically the hand-to-soil labor that builds roads and businesses.
5. Unity – While Barack Obama has maintained his subtlety about issues of class and race, the feeling of true change will permeate the air when he begins his address. The night he accepted the Democratic nomination for President, exactly 45 years from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, he made mention of King’s realized dream, but in the context of improving the country rather than in terms of his individual rise. It was one of his many veiled but true references to the ongoing pursuit of equality. He has never been a “race man” in the way of his contemporaries, even as his awareness of class seems a tangible part of his political directives. Barack Obama will emphasize unity because with the ethic of respect for fellowship, the United States has always reached its high ground. If we view his ascendancy as the natural plateau after hundreds of years of turmoil and disagreement, we will miss the point of striving to bolster that unity at all costs. The inequity we’ve suffered from, the education disparities, the difference in wealth from race to race will continue as before, gaining more validity as we split into our comfortable groups. Obama is a symbol of unity as King was, and he will bear that mantle proudly so long as we follow him in the belief.
4. Prosperity – Boom times are a long way off by any measure. The credit crunch has been exacerbated by the fact that bailed out banks are still hesitant to lend. They horde the cashflow as they always did. Houses are being foreclosed on in steeping numbers, with the black community bearing the brunt of that blow. The auto industry is a debris with billowing smoke to sign its failure in the sky. Even so, in every failure there is opportunity. Many of the advancements in critical technology are made in the direst times, and now is no exception. Beside the flowery promises of Obama ’08 lays the reality of a staggering nation. Prosperity is just over the horizon, he will contend, if for no other reason than to give a silver lining to a decidedly bleak set of prospects. The good news? He’ll probably support the idea of prosperity by spending and investing in every possible way to activate it.
3. Change – He may not go so far as the word “hope” in this speech. Hope is too close to ethereal metaphor, and he’s done being the messiah figure for now. Change has come, though. Barack Obama denotes change more in the way of growth during the coming year. Whereas “change” came to mean anything-but-this-will-do for eighteen months, it now means maturation. Our sometimes progressive instincts belie the general fear that we may change for the worse. At the brink of necessary change, often the imperatives to grow are more daunting that the foreseeable benefits. In this way, Obama has been the leader who demonstrates no fear or apprehension about change, and carefully enacts it as he can. It’s also why his change language rarely falls flat.
2. Service – John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan made their speeches memorable by calling on the regular folks to serve the man just lower than them. The idea that service can be uplifting is not unorthodox among American political leaders. Barack Obama will dip into the well for the perfect expression of service. Humility must prevail over individuality for prosperity and change to seem possible. John McCain put himself at a disadvantage by describing the essential service to the nation as a military practice. In fact, service can come through instruction, through contribution of our vital skills, through recognition of the less fortunate. Only when we broaden the definition of service will we broaden the involvement that it requires. This term will occur more than once in his speech because he will not allow the point to be lost.
1. Sacrifice – In keeping with the sober tones of an Inaugural address, Barack Obama will invoke sacrifice as his main theme. American budgets have to tighten significantly to stop the bleeding of job loss. Political leaders have superficially called for less oil use, less energy use but this moderation has to be a way of life, rather than a glittery slogan. The fundamental commitment to producing more than we consume has been a recurrent (but reluctant) saving grace of American life. Any inclination to excess must be dismissed. Any need to have the shiniest, biggest, most grotesque material things must be put aside. The kind of sacrifice that Barack Obama exhorts on the Inaugural stump might prove the difference between a temporary solution to our problems and a changed national ethic. The next President’s spiritual values will be as strong a presence as the last, but his notions of internal reflection, and personal deference will resound much more than his predecessor’s. Sacrificing time, money, self-interest has made him the leader we flock to, so we must adopt those same precepts if we hope to build him to the level of our expectations.