New Beginning

Barack Obama has made a clean break, not only with the failures of the last eight years but of the last 40—at least rhetorically.

The new president, during his inaugural address, made it plain that the arrogant, counterproductive and undemocratic approach of the Bush years was over. Obama outlined plans for new government programs and regulatory structures, a recommitment to constitutional principles and diplomacy.

There is “work to be done,” he said.

“The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act—not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth,” he said, outlining an ambitious public-works plan designed to modernize not only our roads and bridges, but our power grid and communications infrastructure.

“All this we can do,” he said. “And all this we will do.”

I would add: “We have no choice.”

We’ve spent too many years tied to the false promise of conservatism, to an ideology that paints government as the problem, to politicians who have tossed average Americans into the river of uncertainty while they work diligently on behalf of the campaign contributors and business interests that have sold the nation that same river.

The failure of the financial system, the erosion of our manufacturing base and our transformation into a service culture, the never-ending movement of jobs overseas, the widening gulf between the rich and the middle class and poor, the slow death of our cities and—despite the historic ascension for the first time of an African-American to the presidency—the seemingly intractable and worsening re-segregation of American society stand as a testament to the failure of the conservative creed and a fractured party system that does little more than engender conflict.

Obama called this “the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long,” adding that they “no longer apply.”

“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works,” he said, “whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.”

He promised that those “who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account,” so that “the vital trust between a people and their government” can be restored.

Obama talked of a changed approach on foreign policy that includes rebuilding alliances, telling the rest of the world that “America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.”

He also turned his attention to the constitution, saying that they have “assure(d) the rule of law and the rights of man” and that they should not be relinquished “for expedience’s sake.”

You can read this as a rebuke of the Bush administration—as it surely is. But it also is a rebuke of the Clinton years and every presidency going back to Nixon. The last time we had a president who truly focused on improving the lives of everyone was Lyndon Johnson (civil rights legislation, the Great Society war on poverty), who managed to squander his political capital on the war in Vietnam and doom a surprisingly progressive agenda.

As I write this, Obama has been president for 11 hours and the inaugural address is no more than words on a page. But the words, while not the soaring rhetoric that many expected, offered a level of hope, a sense of a progressive future that we have not been able to imagine for generations.

Hank Kalet is a poet and online editor of the Princeton Packet newspaper group. E-mail See his blog, Channel Surfing, at Follow him at

From The Progressive Populist, Feb. 15, 2009

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