Some Republicans are sour about all the hoopla around the inauguration of Barack Obama. Tom Delay, who used to dream of a ‘permanent Republican majority’ said that due to the nation’s economic problems Obama should have a quiet office swearing in, followed by a ‘chicken dinner.’ Others have lambasted the extravagence of the event while the US economy is in crisis.
To be sure, most of that is probably sour grapes. Seeing the ‘other side’ celebrate can cause resentment, and people look for reasons to criticize. Some go so far as ridiculing and insulting the ‘minions’ who are in DC. The fact of the matter is, this is a very good day for America — no matter where you are on the political spectrum.
First, the cost of the inauguration is tiny compared to the economic problems we face. What we gain for that cost is a time of celebration and renewal, as the nation recognizes what makes it great — a peaceful transfer of power, the fact we’ve overcome so much racism to elect the first black President, and a sense that what is good about the country can overcome the problems that we face.
More importantly, the country is at the start of a very difficult period of transformation. We have been a materialist, consumer oriented society, focused on personal consumption rather than sacrifice or community. The hyper consumerism of the past decades have rendered us a bit lazy and myopic. As a culture we are used to getting what we want when we want it. We have to drive the car off the lot today, no down payment, all on credit. We need the new flat screen TV simply because our old state of the art large screen color set is out of date. We’ve been spoiled by living beyond our means for decades. That’s going to change.
Barack Obama will call on people to sacrifice, to take more personal responsibility, and to take community responsibility seriously. He is reminding us of the values that our consumer society has been whittling away at. Like children who get all they want, we as a society have learned to expect an easy comfortable lifestyle as if it were a birthright. Those days are ending.
No government can force people to change their lifestyle. If government were to try, it would not only fail, but lead to worse outcomes. Economic reality can and of course is in the process of doing that. But for America to do this successfully, and to create a new and better future, we need people to be inspired and prepared to work together to solve problems and focus on community as well as the self. This has to be a choice, not something forced on people from above.
Barack Obama is uniquely positioned to do this. He has already inspired a nation unlike anything I’ve seen before. Republicans who are worried about his potential policies nonetheless recognize that when a country is in trouble, it’s important to pull together. President Obama can’t succeed if the country is divided, or if the people simply expect the government to solve the problems so they can get on with their shopping. President Obama can’t recast our world role if people don’t believe in the change — otherwise the right will accuse him of somehow embracing a weaker America. He needs to inspire the country to come together and compromise to tackle problems of the scope not seen since the first half of the 20th century.
Will he do it? No. He can’t. He’ll need help. He’s been reaching out to Republicans lately, sometimes irritating Democrats, especially liberal partisans. He has asked a controversial pastor to give the invocation, even though his position on gay rights is different than Obama’s and that of the Democratic party. He needs not only to find common ground with these ‘opponents’ on some big issues, but convince those on the left that it is important to work with, not just defeat, the right. The problems are too intense.
To be sure, there should not and will not be unity on policies — there will be intense fights on the budget, health care, and a variety of issues. That is politics in a democracy, we cannot and should not have single party rule. Yet on core values of this country, and the need to work together to renew our sense of purpose and who we are, there can be agreement. We all believe in individual responsibility. We all believe in strong communities and our responsibility to our neighbors. We all believe in freedom and limited government. We all believe that diversity is good, especially diversity of opinion. And, in talking to students and friends, we share a sense that as a nation we lost our way. We’ve been caught up in consumerism, fear of terrorism, and a wave of nationalism. We’ve overestimated our power and wealth, commiting the sins of pride and arrogance.
The nation coming together and celebrating this important transfer of power, and the hope people have for an Obama administration to start a national renewal are very good things. Ultimately, we citizens are responsible for the country we have; Obama can inspire and provide ideas, but absent our actions and willingness to work together, compromise and take responsibility for our future, nothing will change. To the extent that this day can inspire us to go out and do what is necessary to help the country and our communities deal with the difficulties of this era, it is very good for America.
It is shortly after 11:00 AM, EST (this blog is on GMT, which means it will look like it’s posted after 4:00). I’m going to watch the ceremony, and give more thoughts later. Now is a time to celebrate the values upon which country was founded — and with which the country can find a way to thrive again.