Inaugural: Government will do as the people demand

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Many presidents, especially in recent times, have tried to end the disconnect between “the government” and “the people.”

President Barack Obama, as he did in many campaign speeches, did again in his inaugural address on Tuesday.

Obama phrased in his own words the challenge of President John F. Kennedy to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Obama put it, “As much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.”

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There is tremendous temptation, because it is the perspective from which the media reports, to view “government” as something to be watched, sometimes like a sports event, sometimes like a business entity such as IBM or General Electric, sometimes like a sitcom.

The truth is that any separate existence of government is illusory. Government is what we, the people, expect of it. The more every citizen is informed and engaged, the better the result. Inattention and detachment pave the way for corruption and inefficiency. Ultimately, good ideas prevail when enough people of good will get behind them.

The dominant theme of Obama’s speech was that each of us owes it to those who have gone before to build on a diverse, freedom-centered foundation.

“America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents,” he said. “So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.”

There weren’t many specifics, as is the norm, but the president did offer a checklist of sorts. Calling it laying “a new foundation for growth,” he said “we will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.”

Not just in his campaign, but in all of his public life, Obama has stood for civility. Tuesday, he did again, while adding there’s no excuse for government nonsense and that secrecy — so often merely for the sake of secrecy — will end. “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them—that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply,” he said, adding that programs that don’t achieve desired results will be ended. “Those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account—to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day—because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government,” he said.

To the broader global audience, Obama was unequivocal. “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West— know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. 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; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Much history was made Tuesday. President Obama begins having received the largest number of votes ever cast for any person seeking the presidency and with solid backing in Congress. He also leads a nation yearning for an end to war and a return to prosperity.

Those who expect “the people” can sit back and watch “the government” take the right action are wrong. The nation rose through the power of the people, not “the government.” Our future is in our own hands.