The American President, while in the revered company of other presidents from other democracies, is wholly set apart as he is the sworn and approved envoy of all. Not a king as he is the antithesis of a king, voted in a democracy by a freedom-loving majority, yet so akin to a monarch as he is, for reasons immortal, an inscrutable consequence of destiny and legacy.
It is, therefore, with good reason why Americans, as a custom, evaluate the new president’s inaugural address: to somehow catch a foretaste, no matter how vague or unequivocal, not only of a people’s charted course, but in what manner of spirit this course would be set for all to follow and from which to benefit.
Usually however, what a president declares at one’s inaugural address, as a matter of policy, is never penned in stone. As seasons meander and circumstances change, choices and decisions likewise take differing routes, and a naturally anticipated variance follows between what has been promised during an inaugural address and what has been done after that. That as it may, presidential inaugural addresses are by and large about the elected president’s declaration of policy as to how current and future problems should be initially addressed and thereafter dealt with during the term of office. In this sense, we could say that the inaugural address of President Barack Hussein Obama on 20 January 2009 at Washington D.C. possessed all the tradition inherent in the American political frame of mind: A stable future for the United States through a strong and indubitable national policy.
On the other hand, the inaugural address of the 44th American president is, in more ways than any, a cut above the rest. Perhaps it is for the reason that the president’s inaugural address was given by a man of color, a total impossibility eight months ago, yet an achievement of monumental proportions following a run of 222 years of American history; then again, there was an audience of nearly two million people, the largest and most diverse assemblage ever of Americans of all color, age, gender, station in life, creed from the East to the West Coast in a distinctly single occasion—to witness that bitterly cold day of January 20, 2009 at Washington the inauguration of America’s 44th head of state.
Or perhaps, the inaugural address of President Barack Obama was tendered in the same vein as all distinctly renowned American speeches had been given: At a time when the world is in turmoil from sectarian violence, from parochial greed for power, or from the madness of terrorism, and amid a raging international economic meltdown that affects all countries in the world, America no less, all of which somehow undermine the Americans’ sense of peace and security at home and abroad. From Patrick Henry’s Liberty or Death delivered in the year before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s first inaugural piece at the Federal Hall in New York, which paid homage to the “Great Author of public and private good”, to Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address at the Capitol, when he had to deal with the idea of slavery while advancing a free nation; and John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address given beneath a looming cold war crisis and nuclear test ban treaties—all were delivered for the pursuit of peace in a world whirling in crisis after crisis.
Or somehow, like any other form of American oration, President Obama’s inaugural address was by all standard a brave and hopeful reminder to all Americans, as well as the people of the world, that while the most powerful and wealthiest nation ever to exist under God—the United States—is under threat from the terrorism of arms and fiscal uncertainty, it shall, in the same breath, remain heroic and courageous in the face of this ambiguous hour all because from the heirs of liberty, the men and women, who met successfully and overcame far worst adversaries in their lives with all but their self-confidence in their God-given rights and their indubitable faith in the values laid out by the founding fathers of this country, expect nothing more or anything less.
Or may be, it is that I, too, am a man proud and honored by his color, yet an equally proud American citizen, born and raised in the Philippines of Filipino parents, who somehow could empathize with his experience and dreams. Possibly, it was the combination of all these reasons, including those I missed to state here, that made this inaugural speech of US President Barack Hussein Obama primus inter pares, to my mind.
At the onset, one would observe that the inaugural speech of President Obama is prescient of the paradigm of his leadership and ideas on governance. The novelty of this new style of leadership is that while it is forward looking as it clearly allows a creative frame of thought, it is, just the same, emphatically anchored on the ideals and virtues—the great American traditions—laid long ago and upon which the American nation was first established. Needless to say, in President Obama one can discover a fresh swathe of ideas as well as rediscover the glade of American tradition, the fusion of which forms the blueprint of a national journey, which will interminably guide Americans in the effort to remake America.
From this early stage, President Obama is already telling us three things of import to his administration: Firstly, that even at this very modern time, tradition is a source of wisdom to the present; secondly, that his leadership includes the American people and is not, therefore, exclusive; and thirdly, that both the American people and its government carry a debt of duty to restore, recreate, and even reengineer the glory that is America’s destiny. And seemingly aware of the truism that the sum total of those who are led defines the quality of the one that leads, he likewise, enjoins the American people not to look far for solutions to their own problems. They need only to look into their own experience and find inspiration from those same historical ideals just as their forebears had done during their watch. Thus, he said at the beginning of his speech:
Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbears, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.That the success of his paradigm of leadership and the effectiveness of the old American values as inspirations for the remaking of America hinge on the shoulders of every American and not only on its government is all the more underscored when President Obama, later on in his speech, categorically said:
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.As we traverse through the speech, we are constantly made to look back at the past by frequent reference, directly or indirectly, to our founding ideals and documents and their ineluctable relationship with the experience of our American forebears as we face the crises of our times. This reference to our history and past—the Great American Experience—is as meaningful a memoir of our national lineage as the Declaration of Independence is to the spirit of that lineage. After all’s been said and done, the sacrifices of the American people, from past to present, are made only to bear upon us as they were anchored on the rule of law, the American Constitution, on the primacy of liberty, equality of opportunity, and American justice, on the nobility of human dignity regardless of color, creed, gender political persuasion, and economic status. In short, we are who we are as Americans all because there is an America that has stood and still stands on these noble ideals.
As we move profoundly further and farther through the prose of the speech, President Obama’s challenge to the American people actually rests upon his strong belief that only through adherence to these old but tested ideals could America regain her national confidence to resolve the current problems confronting it, forge a better, more peaceful and prosperous tomorrow for Americans and reclaim its somewhat eroded standing before the international society of nations. This is what he calls The New Era of Responsibility, wherein the price and promise of citizenship is innate. To the president, we ought to be guided again by these ideals if we are to make our way through the “dark clouds and raging storms” before us, as one people from one nation. In this new journey to remake America, our fidelity to these old ideals becomes an integral part of our vocation as American citizens. As such, it behooves us to heed the unwritten counsel of our forebears’ experience as we face our current problems, He said:
Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old.The constant reference in his speech to the past obviously reveals by now how much premium President Obama sets on history and its lessons. This revelation is helpful in our understanding of his leadership now and the years to come. It is no wonder then that aside from pointing to us his belief that the linchpin of America and her people in confronting their current problems is a return to the ideals of the founding fathers of America, President Obama also tells us by strong implication that he is keenly aware of the importance of his legacy as a leader. With his penchant to refer to the past as the touchstone of his leadership in the currency of remaking America, he is actually telling us, indirectly, that he expects generations after him to look upon his legacy for guidance, as he also does with those before him, now that he leads this nation. What then could be more assuring to us at this moment of uncertainty in our national future than to have a leader who, aside from his other great qualifications, is also mindful of what legacy he could leave to later generations?
These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.
What is demanded then is a return to these truths. 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.
This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
All presidents of United States, President Obama included, are aware of the classic American idea of a government of the people, for the people and by the people, and that the powers of the office of the president are powers held in-trust for the people by the chief executive. Yet I find the inaugural speech of President Obama, more than any other inaugural speech given by an elected president of America, to vest an important niche to the dynamics of power held in-trust by a leader for those he leads. Implied, yet strongly, he assures the American people that he is fully aware of the same dynamics, and that the power of his office emanates from the people, that he holds these powers in trust for them, and that he will respect this sacred trust from them. This is quite evident from President Obama’s unique use in the inaugural speech of the first-person pronouns - I and WE.
In his inaugural speech, consisting of some 2,404 words, President Obama used the pronoun “I” only three times and never at any moment to refer to his use of the power of his office. On the other hand, he used the collective pronoun, “WE” eighty-nine times, referring to anything he could or would do as the new president of America. This, for me, is resorted to by this speaker not only as a matter of literary license to refer merely to his idea of inclusiveness in his leadership, but as a lucid, if not patent, indication of his acute and transcendent awareness of the source, proper exercise and limitation of presidential power.
Being a lawyer and a community worker for many years for underserved people in South Central in Chicago before he landed at the premier office in the land, Barack Obama appears to have developed a profound reverence for the source of these powers and a keen awareness for whom these powers ought to be exercised– the American people. This active role of the American people in the dynamics of executive power during the presidency of Barack Obama, and the return to the basic ideals of our founding documents presage in no mean terms the end of constitutional adventurism in the exercise of executive prerogatives, a bane of public confidence from a recent past, and elevate the paramount importance of accountability in public office and transparency in national governance as vehicles for the return of public trust to national government. Thus, we fully know what he meant when he said:
And those of us who manage the public's knowledge will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.The underlying treatise why President Obama would stay on course is his own core principles upon which he bases his leadership in the remaking of America. Albeit problems may appear to him under challenging circumstances and his solutions to these problems may also vary in their content and approach, he will not veer away from the principles upon which he rest his leadership—the American values as found in our fundamental documents, the American people, and the role of his legacy to future generations. This, for me, is not only a matter of hope but also one of deep faith and allegiance to this man of history, knowing fully well where he came from and what it made of him.
In fine, President Obama’s call for a return to the great American political and social values, his constant reference to America’s experience in surmounting past obstacles, his implied declaration of his awareness that his powers as president of America are powers held in trust for the American people, his experience as a lawyer for the underserved in Chicago, his being the first man of color to have broken the highest glass ceiling in the storied history of America on matters of intolerance to people of color, and his unspoken quest for a legacy in office that generations may look upon for lessons, spare us with no other conclusion but that his speech is a declaration to the American people and to the whole world that the 44th president of America as such will be a JUST and RESPONSIBLE steward of power, and that he would use them with fairness, guided by the principles upon which America was founded. Thus, he declares, with such confidence that only a man of firm conviction could say:
America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words; with hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come; let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.I was listening to him when he delivered his inaugural address, hearing with both ears and heart the challenge to all Americans. As a man of color myself, I could not help but be moved by President Obama’s passionate delivery of that challenge. I knew the gift of his success, and those whose footsteps he followed, to people similarly situated, including my family and me. We are fully aware that the rights we are totally enjoying now would have been mere privileges at best had it not been for the struggle and sacrifices of the many generations of men and women, people of color and otherwise, many of whom gave the full measure of their devotion to their conviction that in America, all men are born equal, free and ought to live with human dignity. To live our lives NOW, inspired and guided by the ideals that bear our fundamental virtues to posterity for all mankind is too small a price to pay for the quality of life we now have in America.
We, Filipinos are not aliens to these values and virtues. They are neither far-flung, nor remote to our souls all because the ends of these values are no different from the ends of those virtues we learned from our parents. As a nation, the Philippines knew what it was like to fight for its liberty, to bleed both our veins and the ground from which we were born for the promise of a better life, to struggle under the weight of unrelenting tyranny, from both foreign and domestic enemies of freedom, and even now, while the Philippines whirls beneath the weight of a global recession, fettered as she already is in the grip of corruption, Filipinos all over the world stand fearless on the same ideals America had professed and lived out for centuries. Hence, their truism is one and the same. They are substantially similar values although spoken in a different tongue, at different times by different people from a different place. They are actually the same values that save our own forebears during their own moments of peril, and they are the same values that later on became the foundation of our own time and gave us good company when we set foot in America to charter a new destiny for our family and ourselves.
That is why the inaugural speech of President Obama resonates to me as though I am a natural born American, as well as to numerous émigrés, citizens now of America, who were born and raised in different lands yet had known the pain of what it was like to bleed and suffer for liberty.
For these reasons, let the whole world know that we are honored to commit to President Obama that:
“We are with you in this journey to remake America, and so shall everyone in our family. We have faith in you on the lead!
And by the grace of God, somewhere, sometime in our journey, a bright new dawn for America shall surely greet us all.”
“Yes, We Will because We Can.”
Emerito F. Salud,Esq.
Director For Advocacy,
NaFFAA Region One.
Emerito F. Salud - A lawyer from the Ateneo law School ' 73, a member of the NY Bar since 1994, a FILAM community activist, a radio-commentator of RadioPinoy USA, he is currently the Director for Advocacy of NaFFAA REgion 1. He is also a member of the NJ Chapter-Movement for Free Philippines, founded by the late Senator Raul Manglapus, and a founding member of Kaibigan Inc., based at the Port of Newark, NJ, a support group for Filipino merchant mariners (seamen).
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