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Giving The Nation A Much-Needed Pep Talk
January 20, 2009 - John Whittaker
"… no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land -- a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights. 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."
-- Barack Obama, Jan. 20, 2008
It was easy Tuesday to imagine Barack Obama in a locker room somewhere, giving a team that had just weathered a tough first half a much-needed pep talk.
For all its hints toward the policies that Obama wants to pursue in the next four years, Tuesday's speech was a pep talk to a nation that is taking on water like the Titanic. The nation gathered around its newest coach -- nearly two million in person and millions more watching on television -- hoping he has a new, unbeatable play to help reverse the course of the game that appears to be slipping away.
Too often, we Americans find ourselves caught fighting our day-to-day battles -- squabbling over politics, fighting over whose pet project gets funding, arguing over who gets credit for projects -- unable to see the forest through the trees.
For the last few years, one got the feeling that for all the good George W. Bush tried to do, he spent much of his eight years bouncing from crisis to crisis -- the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, a vicious recession, the foreclosure crisis, the Valerie Plame flap and the oft-contentious run-up to the Iraq War, among others -- and not setting a clear-cut direction to the Promised Land.
As the indicators trended downward, Bush and his staff were unable to pull the nation from its tailspin. Bad news generated more bad news, a bad indicator spawned 15 more bad indicators. The nation became increasingly pessimistic. By 2008, Bush's credibility was shot -- everything he touched seemed to turn to mud.
It's not that Obama has a different vision of America than George Bush did. I can't believe that President Bush wanted bad things for the nation -- and it's a sign of the division is helping keep the nation down that people would think otherwise.
Sometimes, simply put, a new voice putting things in a different way is needed.
Yes, Obama mentioned policy during his address Tuesday, but the bulk of his address was inspirational, a road map that set a direction in which he wants to take the country -- a helicopter ride to help us see the lush forest through the redwoods that are the economy, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a spiraling national debt, too-costly health care, 11 million unemployed Americans, a faltering stock market, retirement savings flushed down the proverbial toilet and a lack of trust among our international allies.
Obama's inaugural speech was more Tony Robbins than hell-fire and brimstone. He knew the country didn't want to hear pessimism, and the inaugural speech set a tone the nation needed to hear -- a tone that harkened back nearly 50 years ago.
I wasn't even a twinkle in my father's eye when John F. Kennedy gave his 1961 inaugural address, but couldn't help but be inspired reading that address as a middle school pupil nearly 30 years after Kennedy gave the speech.
It too, is a call to action, a call to the better off to extend a hand to those who are struggling, a call to right the injustices of the world, to do that which is right even if it's difficult to do so.
One passage in particular struck me then and still does so today:
" In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.
Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation" — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?"
There was a feeling in 1961 that the United States was at a turning point, a crossroads of history. It was halftime, and the Americans were trailing in the game against the Soviet Union. There was a thought that America was getting flabby, that the country as a whole wasn't working as hard as it had in the past, that the lessons of the Great Depression were falling by the wayside.
It's fitting, then, that Obama, with competitors nipping at the Americans' heels in every area, took a page from Kennedy by calling for the country to focus on the common good, on citizens to join in the good fight, reminding us that only by working together can the ship be righted:
"We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted -- for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom."
Cristie Herbst, the editor here at The Post-Journal, remembers where she watched Kennedy's inaugural. It's a speech that left an indelible mark on a generation and which continues to speak to Americans even today -- if they care to hear its message.
Only time will tell if the words Obama spoke with such force on Tuesday continue to carry their weight. In an America racked by cynicism, where apathy reigns supreme, however, perhaps Obama's inaugural pep talk is just what we all needed to hear -- a call to re-engage in our national well-being.
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