The inauguration of President Obama occurred just a few short days ago, but already, some of the memories of that momentous event seem to be fading. What I do recall in particular, are the countless smiles which lit up the faces of the two million people in attendance, and the countless tears which rolled down their faces. For many, the election to the presidency of an African American was the fulfillment of a life-long dream that they thought would never come. The day marked not just an inauguration, but indeed a new beginning with regard to race relations in America, and a reawakening of national, as well as racial, pride.
As happy as the occasion was however, so too did it resonate with a sober assessment of things yet to come, and the challenges which lie ahead. In the first few sentences of his inaugural speech, the new President made it painfully clear, that the problems we face are unprecedented in their scope. He talked about many things, but in particular: the threats to our economy, the threats to our environment, and the threats posed by ideological extremism.
I remember vaguely only a few scattered phrases from the speech. But I do recall his saying that the solutions to the problems we face will not come from government, but will come instead from our citizens, in whom the real instruments of power reside. He said as well that our economic ship will take time to right itself, and that there will be pain in the process. He said that the stewardship of our environment has to be given top priority. He said, to the ideological extremists around the world, that they will be remembered for what they build, not what they destroy. He said that our resolve in the face of extremism will not diminish even with the passage of time. And he offered America’s helping hand to those who opt to unclench their fists, and to partner with us for the sake of a brighter day.
The words of the speech were powerful and poetic, fitting for the moment, and carefully chosen to convey the urgency of the challenges we face. But I think as well that a comparison can be drawn between the door that was opened by the election of an African American to the presidency, and the door that will have to be opened if we are to meet the challenges which lie before us. In many ways, the bridge that has been built across the racial divide is a harbinger of things to come, of the many bridges which will have to be built to solve the seemingly intractable problems which lie at our doorstep.
Many of the economic problems will be solved by restoring a sense of trust, and a sense of confidence, in our financial and economic system; in who we are, and who we choose to become. To find our bearings once again, we will build a bridge that spans the legacy of the American Dream with the future we dream for our children. Our economy cannot be just about short-term profits and the accumulation of creature comforts. We should use this opportunity to build an economy that is fair, and that gives everyone on earth a place at the table, a stake in his or her future. We will bring prosperity to ourselves by investing to create prosperity for others.
Similarly, to protect our environment, we will have to build a bridge between the natural world and the world we create for ourselves. We can no longer afford the delusion that we can do whatever we wish to the natural world, and call it a day. There is always a price to pay for our neglect. We are the stewards of the natural world, not its masters. It is only fitting that our survival as a species is intimately linked to our treatment of the world in which we live. We will protect the world not just because it is the right thing to do, but because our own survival lies in the balance.
And in a similar vein, the ultimate solution to ideological extremism and terror is to build bridges between Israel and Palestine, between the disparate countries of the Middle East, and eventually, between the Muslim world and the Western world. These bridges will have as their foundations the five elements of a Vision of Hope: the willingness to talk to one another with common sense and with a sense of personal dignity, the willingness to invest in one another to create good paying jobs, the willingness to inspire one another with a vision of hope, the willingness to sustain the hope with diplomacy, and the willingness to fight against the forces of extremism but within the context of a vision of hope.
President Obama’s election to the Presidency is a light unto the nations with regard to new possibilities for race relations. Similarly, at this point in time, and under such dire circumstances, the U.S. will be called upon to sail uncharted waters, and to build the bridges which will restore our economies, which will sustain our planet, and which will bridge the ideological divide for the sake of peace. In these unprecedented times, an unexpected man has come to power, as if to remind us that words like “change” and “hope” are not simply campaign slogans, but are rather the prescriptions for what ails us. If there is a silver lining to the grave situation we face, it is the chance to create a new version of ourselves, the chance for a new beginning.
And so, we celebrate the inauguration of President Obama, and wish him well, with the hope that a new face will inspire a new direction, and that the bridges will be built by all of us to connect the best version of who we are, with the promise of who we can become.