By A.B. Stoddard - 01/21/09 06:28 PM EST
You didn’t have to vote for Barack Obama to share in the profound uplift of Tuesday, to feel proud to be an American and grateful to be alive to witness this moment in our history. You didn’t have to support Obama to recognize the gravity of the tasks before him and to feel the heavy weight his shoulders now must bear. And you can be skeptical of Obama’s policies and still agree that a day of reckoning is upon us, and that it should be met with responsibility, discipline and sacrifice.
As he summons us to this new era, Obama is asking us to return to time-tested values that will strengthen us as individuals so that collectively we might gird ourselves, our neighbors and our communities for what is to come — the aftermath of greed, instant gratification and indulgence. A culture of shortcuts and short-selling may be new, but to repair a tattered economy and lift Americans from despair, Obama is calling for a remedy of hard work, courage, tolerance, loyalty, patriotism and honesty. Those values, Obama said, are old and true and “have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.”
Having taken his oath as our 44th president, Obama declared many endings as he heralded this new beginning. Conjuring the Book of Corinthians, Obama asked us to set aside childish things. He said “our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed.” And he made it clear that greatness cannot be achieved by those who “seek leisure over work or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.”
Obama is trying to persuade Americans that government cannot and will not do everything to improve our lives, and that we have responsibilities to ourselves, our nation and our world. Fulfilling those duties, he said, is the “price and promise of citizenship.” But Obama wasn’t explicit in his Inaugural address, as he has been previously, about just how Americans might have to change and what those “hard choices” might be.
Before African-American audiences, he has doled out some notable tough-love prescriptions, like not serving “cold Popeyes” to kids for breakfast and not “just sitting around the house watching ‘SportsCenter.’ ” He should use such specifics with all Americans. As unemployment may spike to a projected 10 percent this year, the euphoria of this week will soon fade, and then with it, hope. If Obama wants to capitalize on the optimism of this new day, he might try making himself more clear in the days to come. In the months to come, Americans aren’t likely to be easily enticed or lured into changing themselves. As he beckons the citizenry to serve the common good, Obama cannot rely solely upon his ability to inspire. People will need examples for how they might better serve themselves and those around them. Will it mean only to volunteer within our community and live within our means? Or will it mean paying more for energy and, soon, more in taxes? And as he seeks to restructure the system that regulates the financial industry, what will the new rules of the game mean, especially to small businesses?
Though it may take time to stimulate the economy, and his legislative agenda may not bear fruits for years, Obama has enough political capital to stimulate the public and call it to action. His effort can succeed if he puts his unique communications skills to work, to talk clearly and often of what he expects from the country — as it expects so much from him. People want so much from Obama, but many of them don’t yet know what those childish things are that he has asked them to set aside.
We have heard many promises, now we must hear about the price.
Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.