A day of hope and relief

Yesterday’s inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris was a joyful day of renewed hope for America and a day of relief, that this four-year long nightmare under Donald Trump is over and that, finally, we will have a national strategy to combat the Covid pandemic which has now killed over 400,000 Americans.

It was a day of hope and relief for this nation but also personally, as my wife and I drove out to Cal State University in Northridge, in the flat, enormous San Fernando Valley that is part of Los Angeles, to get vaccinated against Covid. It took about half an hour and we never left our car. We still have another shot in a few weeks, but we are on our way, relieved and with renewed hope that everyday life in America will improve, not only for us but for everyone.

So while yesterday was a day of hope and relief, it was also a day of joy. Joe Biden’s inaugural speech hit just the right notes for this divided, suffering, and confused nation. What has happened to America? That has been a common question these few past years with the chaos, the meanness, the lies, the ignorance emanating from the White House. As the pandemic swept over the country, the lack of leadership became more and more evident. No one was at the helm, because the man in the White House not only did not want to do anything, but he did not know what to do. That’s the danger of having a political amateur run a country.

The contrast, as Joe Biden was sworn in as America’s 46th President, could not be more stark. It was a seasoned, trusted, measured politician who took over, who urged unity and promised professional leadership. Here was also a man with a good heart that further reassured the country and gave it new hope just hours after his predecessor slipped out of Washington, DC almost unnoticed, still refusing to concede and refusing to be part of the ceremonial traditions on the steps of the Capitol. Yes, Trump broke all historical traditions by his absence, but no one seemed to miss him and maybe everyone was better for it. His presence would have been a distraction at the glorious event that took place yesterday in front of a pandemic-empty National Mall.

Instead, Biden and Harris got to have it all to themselves and they clearly cherished the moment. Biden’s speech, 21 minutes long, was superb, hitting all the right notes — the best inaugural speech he has ever heard, said Fox News’ Chris Wallace. Biden talked about unity, about lies and the importance truth, and about democracy, which we have learned once more, he said, that it is “precious.” And although democracy prevailed this time, referring to the Trump years and to the storming of the Capitol just two weeks ago, we have also learned that it is “fragile.”

It was a speech that America needed at this time, as one writer put it in today’s Los Angeles Times, and so, the start of the Biden Administration is full of promise and hope that he and the country will be able to erase the stain of the Trump years and steer America onto a better path. It won’t be easy, although the Democrats now control the White House as well as both branches of Congress. The resistance from the Republicans to change will be fierce, as Trump and Trumpism still control the party. How long that will last is anyone’s guess, but right now it’s unlikely that Biden and the Democrats will have any easy victories although so much is needed to be done.

It’s “we” and “together” in Obama’s inclusive America

President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address today was all about ”we,” and ”we, the people,” about ”equality” and ”together.”  It was a clear and straight forward statement by the re-elected president about his view of America, a liberal/progressive view in an inclusive America  — a country for everyone.

The speech was elegant, inspiring, and passionate, given by someone who looked forward to his second term in the White House with renewed strength and great self-confidence, and it was the highlight of a most festive day in Washington, DC, where the crowds were not as large as four years ago, when almost two million people jammed The National Mall in spite of very chilly weather. But they were just as enthusiastic, clearly cherishing the moment that America’s first black president had been re-elected and handed the nation’s trust for another four years.

The president talked about America’s “never-ending journey” and that so much is remains to be done.

”Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people…This is our generation’s ask – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life and Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American.

The speech was an unabashed re-affirmation of Obama’s basic liberal political philosophy, saying that  ”preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

He was full of hope and faith in America, if the nation stuck together:

“America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it—so long as we seize it together.”

He talked about equal pay for women, equal treatment for gays, right to vote for everyone,  about the importance of social security, Medicare and Medicaid, the right of immigrants, and about gun control, without mentioning the word but referring to the ”quite lanes of Newtown” and keeping the nation’s children ”safe from harm.”

“We, the people,  still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit;  but we reject the belief that America must choose between the caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”

Obama’s second inaugural address was free of political attacks and party politics. It contained no direct attacks on the Republicans, but, on the other hand, one could interpret the whole speech as Obama putting down his marker, that this is what he believes in, this is his America, and this is what he is going to fight for during his second term.

The details in his political program will come in his State of the Union address to Congress on February 12. That will also likely mark the continuation of Washington’s political battle. Will that fight be as merciless as before today’s inauguration? Probably, and maybe even more so… But, at least it is now totally clear where Barack Obama stands, and that feels liberating.

Less hope before Obama’s second inaugural

“We had all started early from home that beautiful but chilly January morning in 2009 in Washington, DC. We wanted to be sure to be there on The National Mall in the middle of the U.S. capital that day. The last stretch, all motor traffic was prohibited, and the streets were full of eager and smiling people on their way by foot to the heart of the capital.”

“The walk of my life,” said a young black man from Atlanta, Georgia, to me. We were among the almost two million people who wandered down to the monuments over the American nation’s two hundred year history to be part of something historic, something that we still found difficult to comprehend that it had happened, something we certainly did not want to miss — a black man had been elected President. We thought that maybe that might happen sometime in the future, maybe even in our lifetimes, but not this year, and probably not for many years to come.”

Those words are from my book America – Land of Dreams about the inauguration four years ago, when Barack Obama became America’s first black president, gave his inaugural address, and we said goodbye to the old America.

Obama’s speech that day was not of the same high quality we had been used to during the election campaign, and certainly nothing like his dramatic speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004, which launched him as a possible presidential candidate:

”There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”

But his inaugural address in 2009 contained nothing really memorable and certainly nothing that has been subsequently quoted extensively. It was a speech in the deepest economic crisis for America since the Depression and with two ongoing wars. The speech refleced those somber times.

That’s nothing unusual, wrote Larry Sabato, professor at the University of Virginia, recently on his blog the Crystal Ball. Sabato wrote about numerable inaugural addresses in the modern era that no one remembers, certainly nothing like Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address in 1965, when he said:

 “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…”

Or 1933, in the middle of the Depression, when Franklin Roosevelt said:

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

But, Sabato wrote, “there is arguably only one speech that transcends the concerns of the moment and speaks to every generation anew, from beginning to end, without becoming dated,” and that was John F Kennedys inaugural address in 1961.

Some excerpts:

“Let the word go forth, from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…”

“…[W]e shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

 “Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long, twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’ — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”

“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Lincoln’s second inaugural address is regarded as much stronger than his first. Maybe we will say the same thing about Obama after tomorrow?  But times are different now and in 2009. The two million who gathered on The National Mall will likely be far fewer tomorrow, and the hope of big changes in Washington is no longer there. The political paralysis in Washington continues as America’s political and economic problems grow.

Back then in January 2009, we said goodbye to the old America, but we have not really succeeded in doing so during Obama’s first term. We are more seasoned now, less hopeful, more realistic.

Still, we should be heartened by the fact that with John F Kennedy a candidate’s religion is no longer an important election issue, the color of a candidate’s skin is no longer an issue with Obama.  In that sense, we are really able to bid farewell today to the old America.