Insight: The inaugural speech

The Jakarta Post
26 January 2013

Insight: The inaugural speech

Wimar Witoelar, Jakarta | Insight | Sat, January 26 2013, 8:49 AM
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President Barack Obama’s second inaugural speech is significant not for its details, but for its relentless focus on principle. It puts the US back on track. When Obama won the 2008 election, he ignited hope. But high expectations were soon followed by major disappointments as Obama seemed unable to lead the nation as he promised. Instead, he had to navigate the political waters of Washington DC. Obama became more credible in the world than he was in the US.

He pushed through his cherished healthcare plan, but at a very high cost to his political capital. He succeeded in lifting the US economy out of the doldrums, but he did so at the mercy of the nation’s power brokers. Obama was put so much on the defensive that Mitt Romney was able to bully him at every turn of the 2012 campaign. He was portrayed as being so weak that people lost track of what he stood for. The polls led parts of the media to project the idea that Obama would just be a one-term president, and that the country would sway toward conservative Republicans.

But, the election results proved them wrong. Obama easily won. His speech at the 2013 Inauguration showed that he had received the mandate of the people, although he had not yet won over the House of Representatives. Similar parallels could be drawn with the case of our President, but this is not time to dwell on that. This is the time to laud President Obama for his keen sense of self, perspective and indeed history.

He did not address economic issues, Palestine or even terrorism in detail. Not because those issues are unimportant, but because he wanted to keep his speech clean and crisp — and short — to hammer home the most important messages of the day. Most compelling were his highlights on his message of equality, underscored by the poetry reading by a gay Cuban-American poet. He stressed his commitment to the most important issue, which he said was climate change, even overshadowing the issue of nuclear proliferation. His speech was remarkable as it set the course for Obama’s midcourse correction. The general directions are very explicit in nature. There will be no difficulty understanding what he means when it comes to translating them into actual programs. Whether he receives sufficient support is another question.

On the issue of equality, he draws a continuous line from Martin Luther King Jr. to women’s rights to gay rights. It shows that all legislation will henceforth be supported by a liberal stand, honoring individual regardless of personal preferences. On global issues, his emphasis on climate change is in fact a repudiation of the US government’s attitude thus far, of being lukewarm on global warming and climate change. The world has done a lot on other issues, but climate change is always swept aside under the guise of unimportance. The reality is that climate change is the biggest threat to the future. Obama stated: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, crippling drought and more powerful storms.”

Obama’s speech was followed a few days later by the results of the Israel elections. Benjamin Netanyahu predictably was the winner, but what was not predicted was that the also-rans would be dominated by centrist, not right-wing groups. In fact, Netanyahu’s coalition will inexorably drift toward the middle. This is a big relief to the Palestine situation. Because where the right-wing cannot accept any two-state solution for Palestine, the coalition might see things more in the global perspective and in the interest of justice. It will concede that without two separate states, there is no possibility of peace in the Middle East in the near future.

Coincidentally or not, this dovetailed with Obama’s position during his first term, when his relations with Netanyahu were frosty, to put it mildly. But as soon as Obama received his huge mandate from the people, Netanyahu came forth showering praise for the reelected president, even after openly supporting Romney, the opposition candidate. While Netanyahu is no doubt a hard-liner, when the signals from the largest superpower are not to his personal liking, he will bend over backwards politically to stay in control of the situation.

Now Obama can visit the Middle East, Palestine, Israel and carry out his agenda more proudly. Now he can promote immigration reform more firmly and now he can encourage REDD+ and climate change reform in a sincere and strong way. The world should have even greater hopes for the US now than when Obama began his first term. 

There might be some reservations on the part of Indonesian foreign policy analysts, especially those who are inclined to look at international affairs from a domestic perspective. For instance, when international experts speak of palm oil, some nationalists might fear that our exports might be hindered by a concern for biodiversity. Enlightened Indonesians know that palm oil revenues do not necessarily improve the economic welfare of the Indonesian people, but rather ensure the profitability of large corporations. Indonesians of conservative persuasion might be concerned with Obama’s embrace of liberal social trends, but Obama understands that “when times change, so must we”, that we must have new responses to new challenges.

The year 2009 brought the promise of change in the US and 2013 brings us to the US we have come to expect, from a leader without divisive tendencies. As he said, “We are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together.”

The writer was a spokesman for the late Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, who was president of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001.

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