I can only imagine their disappointment.
Inauguration Day 2009, the day on which America’s first African-American president was to be sworn into office, was perhaps the most highly anticipated event in recent history. Millions of people from throughout the country filled the Washington mall to be part of this historic, momentous occasion. Tens of millions more watched with eager expectancy and excitement from throughout the United States and beyond.
The focus of the day, of course, was to be change. Change from “politics as usual”. Change from abuses of federal military power. Change from excesses and non-regulation of Wall Street. Change to create stimulus packages that will put Americans to work. Change to reduce dependency on foreign energy. Change from failed diplomacy in the Middle East and other regions. Change from our nation’s lowered standing within the international community. And, of course, change from the racial and social impediments which have curtailed so many from the true fulfillment of the “American Dream”.
“Yes, we can!”
And while Candidate Obama had promised to implement all of these fundamental changes and then some, the new president, in a striking deviation from his campaign pledges, spoke less of how the American government would tackle the country’s many crises, and placed much (if not most) of the burden on the American people.
Consider this, from his inaugural address:
For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies… What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
At a time when the nation eagerly awaited words of inspiration and direction to combat their current malaise, they received a mussar schmooze. According to President Obama – whose prosaic delivery seemed to underscore his lack of inner conviction – one cannot rely on the government to clean up the huge mess that we currently find ourselves in. Rather, he insists that the American people must shoulder much of this burden, and adjust its own modus operandi for the benefit of the nation as a whole.
The new president spoke lengthily of the need to demonstrate care for others, by emulating those who gave up personal work hours in order to keep their coworkers on the job. Or those who offered assistance to others in danger, as exemplified by the firemen on 9/11 or the rescuers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. How these displays of heroism and character would help turn the country around – that he left unanswered.
The shock to the American people, waiting desperately for something to hang their collective hats on, must have been great. Obama’s constituency was looking for an executive quick-fix; a series of bold and decisive acts that would jumpstart our nation and put us back on the path to recovery. Instead, they heard a series of platitudes, praising American values and courage, and leaning heavily on these virtues at a time when hunger, deprivation and uncertainty would (suddenly) reign for the foreseeable future.
In Obama’s words, “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they 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.” By whom and how, that he really did not address.
Obama’s speech failed to live up to the moment. At this historic time, when so many political, economic and social forces were simultaneously converging, as racial barriers were being torn down and a fresh new face was to make its imprint on stodgy Washington, this lucid, captivating rhetoritician failed to display the conviction and sense of purpose of a Washington, a Lincoln, a Roosevelt and a Kennedy. Those presidents’ inaugural addresses capped their campaigns, and set them off towards the fulfillment their stated missions. Obama’s did not, and perhaps did him more damage than good.
President Obama has long been criticized, for his inexperience, for his suspect political associations, and more recently, for his questionable cabinet appointments and stimulus plans. Until this point, our new executive in chief has relied largely his charm, charisma, intelligence, dexterity and sense of purpose, (not to mention his status as the anti-Bush,) to achieve his meteoric rise to political preeminence. After this disappointing beginning, it’s anyone’s guess as to how much substance lies behind his captivating style.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Associate Principal at Yeshiva Shearis Yisroel/Veitzener Cheder and an instructor at Hebrew Theological College in Chicago, IL. For more information about Rabbi Hoff, visit his website, www.rabbihoff.com.