WASHINGTON, Jan 20 (IPS) - Speaking before a record crowd estimated at between two and three million people at his inauguration here Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama promised a foreign policy of “humility and restraint” and “greater cooperation and understanding between nations”.
In his first address as president, Obama also said he will take “bold and swift” action to address the deepening economic crisis designed to roll back the excesses of the market and “lay a new foundation for growth,” and to ensure that, in dealing with terrorist threats, he will seek to protect the rule of law and human rights.
“As for our common defence, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” he asserted in an implicit rejection of the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, that received the strongest applause of a 15-minute address delivered shortly after he was sworn into office by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on the balcony of the U.S. Capitol.
“Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generation. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”
Obama’s swearing-in, which took place at noon in bright sunshine but frigid temperatures, was preceded by 90 minutes of pomp, music and circumstance, as the nation’s governors, congressmen, senators, past presidents and vice presidents all filed in before Bush himself was announced - to scattered booing and then an embarrassing silence, followed by Obama, who drew waves of cheering.
But most impressive was the immense crowd that gathered for the occasion. It stretched from the base of the Capitol Building down the stately National Mall to the Lincoln Memorial some three kms away. The previous record for an inauguration was 1.5 million in 1965 when Lyndon Johnson was sworn in for his first full term.
The celebration was clouded shortly later Tuesday afternoon as news spread that Sen. Edward Kennedy, who was diagnosed with brain tumor last year, reportedly suffered a seizure during a lunch reception held for Obama in the Capitol by the Congressional leadership after the swearing-in.
Obama’s speech, delivered in the same confident oratorical style that has become his trademark since he first emerged into the national spotlight at his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004, was both grim and determined, noting that Washington is not only “at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred,” but also that the U.S. economy is “badly weakened”.
“Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land - a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights,” he said, adding that the challenges faced by the country are “serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met.”
On the economy, Obama indicated he intended to take strong action on the nation’s transportation and communications infrastructure, health care, and alternative energy sources, notably solar, wind, and biofuels, among other areas. In another swipe at Bush, he promised to “restore science to its rightful place”.
“Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans,” he said. “Their memories are short.”
“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works…”
“Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill,” he added. “Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous.”
Surprisingly, Obama devoted more attention to foreign affairs in a series of implicit rebukes to the unilateralist and militarist tendencies of the Bush administration.
After pledging to uphold the rule of law and human rights while maintaining national security, he pledged to “all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.”
“Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions,” he went on. “They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, not does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”
“We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort - even greater cooperation and understanding between nations,” he went on, adding, “We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan.”
“With old friends and former foes, we will tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the spectre of a warming planet,” he said. At the same time, he added, “We will not apologise for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defence, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”
Obama stressed that the U.S.’s own “patchwork heritage” was a “strength, not a weakness” and that its own long struggle to eliminate slavery and segregation gave it an optimism “that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”
“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” he declared. Obama’s advisers have said he plans to deliver a major address in the capital of a major Islamic nation within the first 100 days of his term.
“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds,” he went on. “And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside out borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”
Obama, the nation’s first president of African descent, alluded only once to his own experience - or, more precisely, his Kenyan father’s - when he noted that core U.S. values of “hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism” explained “why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”
In the Inaugural’s benediction, civil rights icon Rev. Joseph Lowery also alluded to race when he asked God to “help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.”