President Barack Obama reaches out to all nations with vow to ‘remake America’

A friend emailed Tuesday morning from New York: “In tears already and it hasn’t begun.” Another wrote me that her husband, horrified by reports of crowds in Washington, was “afraid there will be a stampede or something awful”.
Which summed it up, really: the levels of emotion built up in advance of the 2009 presidential inauguration ceremony were so high that some wept, some fainted, and some were paralysed by fear.
I succumbed just once: when the 21-gun salute started firing after President Obama took the oath of office, I inadvertently jumped, fearing that the “something awful” had just begun.
In the event, the only glitch was a slight garbling of that oath (was he supposed to “serve faithfully” or “faithfully serve”?) on the part of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which led to some questioning looks from Mr Obama, and a split second in which the new President appeared almost flustered. But by the time he stepped up to the podium to give his inaugural address, he had recovered his celebrated cool. As one of the most gifted orators of his generation, he surely knew expectations were high, along with those fears and emotions. And he met them, in the end, in part by confounding them.
It is traditional in inaugural addresses to speak directly to Americans, to invoke American traditions, to encourage the nation on to greater things (“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” said President Kennedy), and of course to welcome those of your countrymen who have braved the cold to listen to you speak from the Capitol steps.
But Mr Obama is surely the first president to use that podium not only to speak to Americans, in Washington and beyond, but to use his inaugural address, deliberately, to speak directly to the rest of the world.
Consciously casting himself as a global leader of a globalised society, Mr Obama saluted “our patchwork heritage”, as he called it: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.”
More to the point, he continued, this patchwork America’s history of overcoming a legacy of “civil war and segregation” contains direct lessons for other, less prosperous, more war-torn corners of the world: “We cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the dark lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.”
Though it is also traditional for newly sworn-in presidents to refer abstractly to “dictators” or “those who threaten us”, Mr Obama pushed that tradition further too, addressing himself directly to specific groups of foreigners. “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” he said. “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history.” He went on: “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you … and to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect.”
Nothing very original about any of those sentiments, of course, except the assumption behind his phrasing of them: namely that “the Muslim world” and “the people of poor nations” and “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit” were actually listening, which they probably were.
It wasn’t, in the end, the triumphal speech many wanted, but nor was it the egotistical speech many feared. It was shorter than expected – less than half an hour – and it ended not with Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, as many supposed it would, but with the words of an Englishman.
Thomas Paine’s pamphlet The America Crisis contains the words which General Washington read to his troops camped by the Delaware in 1776, at the very lowest point of the revolutionary war. Mr Obama quoted them in the final part of his speech: “Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.”
Mr Obama chose, in other words, to recall a moment of failure, not a victory or a success. And that, perhaps, was also intended as a message to the global audience, both friendly and otherwise.
Here is a humbler America, he was saying, an America which recognises the depth of its current crisis – but also an America which is determined to fix itself, an America which intends to recover and to remain, as Mr Obama put it, “the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth”.