Estimates are that two million people braved the bitter Washington, D.C., cold to fill the National Mall for the inauguration of Barack Obama. Millions more joined the celebration from around the globe, stunned that American voters had defied history to elect their first black president, and filled with a great hope that a new chapter in U.S. foreign relations was beginning. And yes, in large part, many celebrants simply felt a vast relief that George W. Bush, arguably the most unpopular and unsuccessful president in U.S. history, was finally gone from the office to which he brought so much shame.
It is, perhaps more than anything, the extreme contrast between Bush and Obama that helped fuel the wild celebrations worldwide. For here, on the stage for all to see, was the former president, barely capable of getting out a coherent sentence, who had bragged about “Mission Accomplished” while hundreds of thousands more would die at his command in an illegal war. Meanwhile, the new president, a dazzling orator, looks forward with temperance, wisdom, hope and, above all, humility at the daunting tasks ahead and the stunning reality that he has been given this opportunity by Americans hungry for new leadership.
For the world, it was the transition from America the Bully under Bush to a new America that, while acknowledging its responsibilities in an uneasy world, likewise gave credence to a fresh role that keeps the steel fist so readily used by Bush in a velvet glove of diplomacy, understanding and mutual aid.
For Americans, it is a welcome change from living under Bush’s corrupt rule, the scion of a rich and powerful family, privileged from birth, pampered and subsidized through his life, and far too willing to aid the wealthy few at the expense of the many weak and poor. Instead, in a living example of the hope he embodies, we now have Obama, a man who grew up poor and black, fought his way off the streets to attain an education, earn a successful living, reach the U.S. Senate on the merits of his own talents, and then ascend to the presidency of one of the world’s most powerful nations.
Personalities and backgrounds aside, it is also a welcome change from the way the Bush administration conducted its business. With Vice President Dick Cheney leading the way, Bush and his cohorts ignored domestic laws and international treaties alike, going so far as to have Cheney declare that he wasn’t a part of the government’s executive branch and hence, immune to congressional summons and long-standing laws. At the same time, the constitutional rights of Americans were summarily stuffed through the Bush-Cheney shredder. Warrantless spying on our own citizens was embraced while habeus corpus, innocent until proven guilty and the procedures of our justice system, such as knowing what you were being charged with and having legal counsel, were ground into the bloody dirt of the Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prisons.
Now, Obama says he will close Guantanamo, bringing that shameful episode in our nation’s history to an end. But while he’s closing the horrors, he’s opening up the government to the transparency the American people rightfully expect in our democracy. It’s highly unlikely that Vice President Joe Biden will be hiding in “undisclosed locations” issuing orders for illegal black ops to topple the leaders of other sovereign nations. Likewise, Obama is not likely to rush the nation into an unwarranted war with the threat of “mushroom clouds” based on cooked intelligence that was known to be incorrect at the time Bush lied to the nation about it.
Yet, if it is a joyous relief for our nation to see Bush finally fly off into the sunset, it is a future filled with trepidation and challenge for those who follow him into office and must strive to right his many wrongs.
There, too, Obama’s words in his inaugural address bring hope. Rather than the childish chest-pounding of his predecessor, Obama tempered his speech with realities, even if those realities are harsh. We have to change some of our basic assumptions and the way we live our lives, the new president told us. We must end the unbridled greed of the few that has ruined the lives of so many. And we must go forward with the understanding that only by changing will we be able to successfully survive and thrive in the future.
That means addressing the problems of what Obama called “a warming world” by using renewable resources such as sun, wind, tides and biomass. What a refreshing change from Bush’s ignorant denial of global warming in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. Just think how much better off our nation would be had we not spent eight long years ignoring the problems and exacerbating them by blowing off the Kyoto Treaty and efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, if we had instead been pushing through higher mileage standards and implementing the renewable technologies that were already available. Just imagine what our world would be like if America had spent the $2 billion a week wasted in Iraq on taking care of our own people, insulating their homes, putting solar hot water heaters and panels wherever they were feasible, and re-tooling our automobile production instead of handing out billions to bail them out.
The challenges facing our nation are as great as they have been in nearly a century—perhaps greater because of the complications of global warming, which continue to pound the country with bizarre and unexpected effects. As an example, while Washington, D.C., was a frigid 28 degrees on Tuesday, Fairbanks, Alaska, in mid-winter, was 7 degrees warmer at 35.
The daunting conditions will test the mettle of our entire nation, and the outcome is far from certain. But for this week, for this brief moment, we can go forward, as Obama said “with hope, not fear.”
Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.