Throughout the course of Obama’s inauguration day, I encountered a mixture of emotions from people I spoke with. The most prevalent ones were, of course, feelings of excitement, enthusiasm, and the sense that history was being written. However, for all these people, there were a large group who were mystified by the fact that people were making such a huge deal about the whole thing. They felt that it was a lot of hullabaloo for nothing. While it is true that all presidential inaugurations are highly televised and intensely covered, this one seemed to garner an amazing amount of attention, from all corners of the globe. This was the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, NY yesterday, where they held a public viewing of the inauguration.
So the question needs to be posed. Was the hype justified? After all the pomp and circumstance, the official ceremonies, first dances, record setting crowds, the influx of Hollywood’s finest, and Obama’s remarkably moving speech, what comes next? Will the change that Obama has promised proliferate or fizzle?
I personally believe that, in one significant way, things will change under Obama. For the purposes of this piece, I want to concentrate not on specific issues but more on the general ambiance of America’s political arena. In terms of the oftentimes vicious relationship between the Democrats and the Republicans, of the widening chasm between small town conservative America and big city Liberal America, of the general tone of daily interactions between politicians and citizens alike who passionately hold fundamentally opposing views, Obama will make a difference. My guess is that he will promote a richer sense of empathy, understanding, and cooperation in America.
Here is a list of quotes made by the new President, which lead me to believe that he does represent a significant change in attitude (which will prove to be contagious) from many of his predecessors:
#1 – “It [the absence of even rough agreement on the facts] rewards not those who are right, but those who can make their arguments most loudly, most frequently, most obstinately, and with the best backdrop.” The Audacity of Hope
This quote came after Obama told a story about US personnel acting inappropriately towards prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. After multiple sources (including Newsweek and the Pentagon) essentially proved that US guards had flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet in front of a detainee, Fox News ran this news item along their newsfeed that same day: “Pentagon finds no evidence of Koran being flushed down the toilet”. Obama’s argument is that politicians need to be able to admit when a fact is a fact and that the American public has the right to a transparent government. American media should not be allowed to use their networks to manipulate the facts so as to obscure and oftentimes, blatantly erase what is true.
#2 – “The story [hypothetical news story] is not really about the merits of the tax cut or the dangers of the deficit but rather about the dispute between the parties. After a few paragraphs, the reader can conclude that Republicans and Democrats are just bickering again and turn to the sports page, where the story line is less predictable and the box score tells you who won.” The Audacity of Hope
Here, Obama used a hypothetical news story about tax cuts to prove his point that the media concerns itself more with the clashing of ideas rather than the consensus of ideas, because that is what sells papers. He writes that usually, the story will have reaction from a liberal source, followed by a conservative source, but most of the time will lack reaction from an independent analyst who might “walk us through the numbers”. Bickering begets bickering and therefore, no real progress is made and no deeper understanding by everyday citizens of the issue at hand is obtained.
#3 – “In that sense, the episode [a reporter circulating a negative article about Obama comparing himself to Lincoln] hinted at a more subtle and corrosive aspect of modern media – how a particular narrative , repeated over and over again and hurled through cyberspace at the speed of light, eventually becomes a hard particle of reality; how political caricatures…lodge themselves in our brain without us ever taking the time to examine them.” The Audacity of Hope
This is another example of Obama’s willingness to listen, digest, and learn from the Republican side. He refers to the overarching idea that the media has created this giant wedge between Republicans and Democrats, essentially drawing caricatures of each side. This phenomenon only serves to distance them from each other and as a result, serves to further divide America rather that unite it.
#4 – “ And as I look over the crowd, I somehow feel encouraged. In their bearing I see hard work. In the way they handle their children I see hope. My time with them is like a dip in a cool stream. I feel cleansed afterward, glad for the work I have chosen” The Audacity of Hope
Here, Obama is talking about the grounding effect that hosting town hall meetings has on him. In almost confessional tones, he often wonders aloud whether Washington will change him and thereby shifts his focus from helping average and poor Americans to padding the wallets of the super wealthy. These town hall meetings helped to keep the big picture of America clear in his mind and to remind him of who he is really fighting for.
#5 – “I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those people who are struggling in our society. After all, if they are like us, then their struggles are like our own. If we fail to help, we diminish ourselves. But that does not mean that those who are struggling…are thereby freed from trying to understand the perspectives of those who are better off. Black leaders need to appreciate the legitimate fears that may cause some whites to resist affirmative action. Union representatives can’t afford not to understand the competitive pressures their employers may be under. I am obligated to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That’s what empathy does – it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressed and the oppressor. We are all shaken out of our complacency. We are all forced beyond our limited vision.” The Audacity of Hope
This quote seems to lie at the crux of Obama’s set of values and ideals. From the beginning of his political life, he has always spoken of empathy, the lack thereof in our lives, and the need to reinstate it. The wealthy need to understand the needs and circumstances of the poor in order to understand the world they live in. And vice versa. Americans are far less different from each other than they think, no matter how the media wants to portray them. They possess common needs, goals, aspirations, and values and I believe that Obama will succeed in helping many Americans turn the page on divisiveness.
It is precisely this overarching idea of inclusiveness that Obama promotes which made yesterday so very significant. Here is a man who I can relate to as a politician. I feel like the way he views the world mirrors in many ways the way I view the world. He speaks of inclusiveness, of sameness, of consensus and of cooperation rather than conflict. I have been studying politics for quite a while now and politicians to me have always seemed distant, boring, and robotic. Something to be studied rather than something to be admired. People trying to spin the media in their favour in order to win an election rather than people relying on their honesty and their values to win over the public. But with Obama, you get this magical sense that he is speaking from the heart. That all his hopeful rhetoric is not just a shtick but rather a set of values that have been planted in him from a young age. Now, he has the ultimate stage to promote those values.
And today is only Day #2. Let’s see how he does.