Yesterday I said goodbye to Mr. Bush and surveyed the damage his administration has done to our democracy. And it was severe and widespread.
But we yet live in a democracy, even so. And a small part of that idealistic and hopeful system of government survives even the undemocratic reign of George Walker Bush. It survived this time in the form of the largest voter turnout in America’s history, in the election that selected the Electors who selected Barack Hussein Obama to be our 44th president. Mr. Obama will be sworn into office today. The campaign he ran was based on hope and change, which are, after all, the emotions underpinning our idealistic form of government. That makes Mr. Obama far more democratic than Mr. Bush.
Two months ago, on Election Night, I celebrated our country’s choice of Mr. Obama over his rival, Sen. John Sidney McCain. I danced in the streets. I talked to a woman who had lived in this country for many years but had not been a citizen. After the disappointing election of 2004, however, she knew that she had to do more; she worked hard so that when the election of 2008 came around, she could vote. I’m sure her story has echoes and parallels all over.
I also talked to a gentleman who was visiting our country on business from Switzerland. He was impressed and amazed at the happiness and joy he saw from Americans after electing Mr. Obama. I was proud of my country and of we, the people. He was happy to have been here on that night.
And the next day, I received an email from friends of mine, citizens of the United Kingdom, giving happy thanks to us for electing such a competent and rational president.
Today is our day to celebrate the renewal of the most powerful of our three co-equal branches of government. Today we take the man who won our popular vote, the man who then won the vote of the electors, and the man who was certified by the weakest branch of our three co-equal branches of democratic government, and make him swear before us, and the world, to uphold the Constitution that founded our country.
Not to uphold his political party’s policies. Not to protect the businesses, geography, or the religious beliefs, or the idea of democracy in the world at large. Not even to protect the lives of Americans or human beings in general. No, he, as all past presidents have, will swear to uphold the Constitution and the values, ideals, and laws found in that document.
Our Constitution of the United States of America is a very readable and accessible document. It grants many powers to the Legislative Branch, the institution that holds our directly-elected representatives. It grants a few powers to the Executive Branch, the one which will have Mr. Obama as its Chief Executive for at least the next four years. And it outlines the scope of responsibilities of the third branch, the Judicial, which is supposed to arbitrate the balance of power between the first two.
But somehow, over time, we’ve allowed more and more power for the Executive, largely at the expense of the Legislative. This is good if the person elected President is a good person, bad if the person is a venal or evil person. As much as I believe that Mr. Obama is a good person, I will still work to shift the balance of power back to Congress, and will work to elect leaders who understand that our Constitution doesn’t enforce itself.
Mr. Obama was a Constitutional scholar, so I am certain he is well aware of the fears and ideals that went into it, and the history of how it has been amended and interpreted. His knowledge of the details certainly far exceeds mine. But he and I, and we, the people, are all still subject to the laws it enshrines.
Will Mr. Obama bring about as much hope and change as we, the people, thirst for? Time will tell. I will give him the chance, of course. He is my president, and not simply because I voted for him. I agree with some of Mr. Obama’s positions, and I disagree with others. That is normal for a democracy; it thrives on opposition. But I will give Mr. Obama the chance to go from campaigning, to governing. He will now have the opportunity to enact policies rather than make promises.
Others may trust Mr. Obama to be a good president in the sense of enacting policies that uphold the ideals of our nation, but I am willing to bet that even Mr. Obama knows that it’s up to all of us to hold him accountable and to encourage him when he succeeds and to argue and discourage when he fails. We can do that through our representatives in Congress and at the state and local levels – or we can do that ourselves. And he will have no choice but to hear from we, the people, on what we think of his actions.
Luckily Mr. Obama has taken steps that are unprecedented in our history of opening a dialogue with we, the people, thanks to the tools our technology have given to all of us. I’m encouraged by the visible evidence of Mr. Obama’s willingness to listen, in the form of his website, Change.gov. I’m a little less encouraged by his somewhat weak answers to the top questions we, the people, have been asking him on that site, but at least he’s willing to engage us.
Mr. Obama values discussion and debate. It’s been said he thrives on disagreement. But after the topics have been hashed out, he also urges us to come together around the solution. Unity of purpose after everyone has voiced their thoughts. I can deal with that as long as I feel I have been heard, and as long as the final decision is based on the majority view, and as long as the core values of the Constitution are being followed. I trust Mr. Obama to do that – and I will work to ensure it happens. Mr. Obama would expect no less of us.
The people Mr. Obama has selected for the various departments under his control appear to be competent, educated, and outspoken. A team of rivals. Some of them are already unafraid to disagree with their boss; Eric Holder said in his confirmation hearings that the president is not above the law. Mr. Obama chose his political rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to represent his foreign policy. His Energy Secretary is an actual scientist, well-versed in the nuts and bolts of how we create energy, rather than a representative from the businesses that sell oil, as most Dept. of Energy heads have been in the past. He chose to retain the previous Defense Secretary, Robert Michael Gates, a member of the other political party. OK, maybe Mr. Gates isn’t a shining example of competence, unless you count the fact that Mr. Gates has apparently prevented Mr. Bush from invading Iran.
Even where I disagree with Mr. Obama, I am proud of him. I am proud of my country for having elected him in record numbers. And I am eager for the future renewal of our democratic experiment.
Welcome to the White House, President Obama. Congratulations on participating in our democracy. Please leave it stronger than you inherited it.