A Sea Change
At noon on Tuesday, Barack Obama culminated his historic and unlikely rise to the presidency by taking the oath of office on the U. S. Capitol steps. It was a journey undertaken on a message that hearkens back to the words of the greatest American leader of the 20th century, Franklin D. Roosevelt – the rejection of fear in favor of hope.
And it was this philosophy, this profoundly American philosophy, which served as the recurring theme for his inaugural address – and marked the starkest differences between President Obama and his predecessor.
Two-thirds of the way through his address, President Obama uttered the most significant words of his political career up to now:
"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.”
With those words, Mr. Obama signaled the most effective and thorough repudiation of the right-wing culture of perpetual fear that served as the cornerstone of the Bush presidency. The Bush message, every day, was "Be afraid." Be afraid of the terrorists – there might be one lurking behind every fire hydrant. Be afraid of the immigrants. Be afraid of the liberals. Be afraid of the non-Christians. Be afraid of the gays and lesbians. Be afraid of everything and everybody who isn't exactly like you. They're all out to get you.
And, as you nurture and feed and wallow in this fear, remember that we, your leaders, can only protect you if you surrender your constitutional rights. You must give up your right to be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures. You must give up your right to a speedy trial. You must grant your government far-reaching powers to delve into every aspect of your life – your job, your family, your friends, the library books you check out. You must forfeit your privacy. But it's all for your own good. For your own protection. Trust us.
On January 20 Barack Obama exposed the Bush culture of fear for the manipulative big lie it always was. He pointed to our Founding Fathers – who were charged with drafting a body of laws for an infant nation that faced internal and external threats of a magnitude far beyond any modern terrorist organization.
Eighteenth-century America faced challenges from Tories eager to re-establish ties to Britain; from Indians fiercely defending their territories and their way of life from white encroachment; from European powers itching to exploit this newcomer to the global scene; and from internecine virtual warfare among the former colonies, all trying to defend their own provincial interests.
But despite this gloomy backdrop, our nation's founders still took it upon themselves to construct a system of government that respected the rights of the individual – and placed serious constraints on the power of the government to abridge the freedom of its citizenry. And this was an extremely radical notion at that moment in history; there was virtually no government in the world founded upon Enlightenment principles at that time. The Founding Fathers took a chance; and it resulted in America becoming a great nation and a beacon for the rest of the earth.
The Bush administration used the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to betray just about every Constitutional precept imaginable. It proceeded to do so despite constant smack downs by the judiciary (Congress was a supine, vestigial branch of government during that time). And President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney always insisted that this was all for our own good. Quaker peace activists became threats to national security.
In sum, Bush officials insisted that we had to destroy our freedoms in order to save them.
But now we have Barack Obama in the White House. And right out of the gate, he reiterated that no, we don't have to choose between liberty and security. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. We are a strong nation – and strong nations don't compromise their ideals in the name of "expediency."
No matter what President Obama does in his first 100 days, this is already a sea change from the eight years of President Bush.
We have our Constitution and our Bill of Rights back. And let's hope this is but the first of what will be many great Obama achievements.