In Barack Obama's America, reason and hope prevail where suspicion and poison once reigned

Why the President's Inauguration Address should cheer decent people everywhere

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Only his daughter yawned. When the 44th President of the United States of America stood, in the bitter cold, in front of 900,000 people, and told them what he wanted to do for their nation, only his youngest daughter yawned. She was cold, and tired, and 11 years old, and had probably heard quite a lot of it before. But for everyone else, and the millions watching around the world, it was the kind of speech to wake you up.

Even if you didn’t listen to the words, it was the kind of speech to wake you up. Even if you just listened to the rhythms of the words, which were sometimes like the rhythms of poetry, and sometimes like the rhythms of music, and which made you feel that you’d started in one place when you started listening and ended, when it finished, somewhere else. But if you did listen to the words, it could only make you think of something that was mentioned an awful lot when the President was trying to get elected the first time, but which hadn’t been mentioned for quite a while. It could only make you think, in fact, of hope.

Making history

When, for example, Barack Obama said that a “free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play”, it made you think that maybe there was some alternative to a market that always puts profit first. When he said that “a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards”, it made you think that maybe it was possible for a country to face economic realities, and still make sure that it wasn’t always the poorest who faced them most. And when he said that his country would “respond to the threat of climate change” and “the overwhelming judgement of science”, it made you think that, even in a country where quite a lot of people think the world was made in seven days, reason could sometimes win.

And when he talked about all people being “created equal”, and then said that those people included “our gay brothers and sisters”, it made you think that this was a way for a man who had already made history to make history again. It made you think that making sure some people weren’t treated differently to other people just because of who they slept with was exactly the kind of thing the most powerful nation in the world should be doing.

It made you think, in fact, that it was a much more important thing to be doing than sending soldiers to fight wars which even the most powerful nation in the world couldn’t seem, any more, to win. It made you think of the “decade of war” Barack Obama said was ending, and that it was probably best for everyone, and particularly for the relatives of the soldiers who had died, not to think too much about what that “decade of war” had achieved.

It made you remember what he said about “enduring security” not coming about through “perpetual war”. And that he seemed to think it was better to show “the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully” and strengthen the “institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad” than to declare wars, on things like “terror”, that are very, very, very hard to win.

It also made you think that it was a shame that David Cameron hadn’t heard the speech before he said on Monday that he would “completely overcome” violent groups like the one which took hostages at a gas plant in Algeria last week. We must, he said, “frustrate the terrorists with our security, beat them militarily, address the poisonous narrative they feed on”, and “close down the ungoverned space in which they thrive”. Since six British workers had just been killed, you could understand why he’d want to sound as though it was the kind of thing he wouldn’t want to happen again. You’d be surprised if anyone, except violent groups who liked taking people hostage, did. But you also wanted to ask him if he realised that that “ungoverned space” was really quite big.

Dealing with poison

You wanted to say that it was, of course, a good thing that the number of terrorist plots against Britain that started in Afghanistan and Pakistan had, in the past four years, fallen from three-quarters to less than half, but that it was a shame that they had started in Yemen, Somalia and a lot of North Africa instead. And that what that seemed to show was that what he called a “poisonous ideology” wasn’t something you could destroy with guns and tanks, and that if you did manage to get rid of it in one place, it would just spring up somewhere else.

You wanted to remind him that taking action in someone else’s country always had consequences you didn’t quite expect. That intervening in Libya, for example, looked as if it might have added to the strength of Islamist militant groups across North Africa, which was part of the problem you now faced. You wanted to ask him if he listened to the interview with a man whose brother had just been killed in Algeria. “You can’t guard every installation across the world,” said Bob Whiteside, “just because of these fanatics. If they’re going to attack, they’ll do it.”

Yes, they will. It would be nice if we could stop bad people from doing bad things, but we can’t. It would be nice if we could crush “poisonous ideologies” in other countries around the world, but we can’t do that either. We are, as the 44th President of the United States has made clear, and as even his youngest daughter would probably, if she could keep awake, agree, better off trying to tackle the challenges, and injustices, and economy, and inequalities, and, of course, the “poisonous ideologies”, in our own.

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