The Green Papers Commentary

Sober reflections as we approach
President Obama's Inauguration

Monday, January 19, 2009

by Richard E. Berg-Andersson Staff

When one of my brothers was a much younger man than he is today (especially before he became a dad), he used to often go rock climbing up sheer cliffs with a minimum of- if any- safety equipment. I asked him how he was able to do this and he would reply, with something of a wry grin, "It's simple-- I don't have the option to fall".

I recently thought of that phrase: "No option to fall" and how- given the times in which we Americans now find ourselves, as well as the very nature of the man who is to be Our Nation's 44th President- this seems a much better phrase as we come to the very day of his swearing-in than the mere "No option to fail": for Barack Hussein Obama (the very name itself evidences a major departure from the long tradition suggested by the names of his many predecessors) finds himself in a position fraught as much with possibility as it might be filled with potential pitfalls.

For starters, Barack Obama's racial heritage is itself the first potential pitfall: for, much like Jackie Robinson breaking the so-called "Color Barrier" in Major League Baseball more than six decades ago, the first African-American President of the United States simply cannot allow himself to either fail or fall. Even though he is not the archetypal (where not also- by now, thanks to both Hip-Hop culture and the much older Blues [as well as its lineal descendants, ranging from Jazz to Rock to R&B]- iconic) contemporary African-American, whether growing up in a gritty inner city neighborhood or in a poor rural backwater (although, to be sure, there are a large percentage of Blacks in the United States nowadays who do not share either background and who, instead, grew up as comfortably middle class as I myself did), he alone now bears many of the hopes and dreams- and, yes, the fears- harbored by those of his skin color who did not grow up as he himself did (and how hard it is to now remember, not much more than a year ago now, having heard reasonable debate within the Black community of America itself as to whether or not Barack Obama was, precisely because of his unique background, "really" Black!)

Meanwhile, there are still those Whites who, not all that long ago, denigrated- where they did not also disdain and even dread- the possible accession of a Black American President who now, instead, decry what they perceive as Obama's having "abandoned" that "White heritage" he inherited by having been born to a White mother and, at one point in his upbringing, being raised by grandparents who were originally Whites from what is regularly referred to as the very Heartland of America. Of course, these complainants conveniently (where not also disingenuously) forget the very cause of their original denigration and dread- the fact that a Barack Obama growing up in the America of his youth and younger adulthood had no choice but to be seen as Black:

also note well that Obama was the quintessential "electable Black President" precisely because his mother was White and, in addition, think even more about just how electable he might not have been had his wife not been a Black woman from the South Side of Chicago but, instead, had herself been White!

In his own way, and in any event, a President Barack Hussein Obama (the middle name a reminder that his father was, after all, a Muslim from Africa) forces us all to deeply confront Our Nation's deepest-seeded racial and religious (especially since 11 September 2001) prejudice...

yes it is, and will yet be for a time as yet unmeasurable, rather uncomfortable...

but, guess what, my fellow Americans?-- it should be...

and, more importantly, it had better be in order for all of us to eventually become better off!

However, even if this Inauguration were not as historic as it is primarily because of the race of the new American President, it would be historic nonetheless because of the very problems this country, and the world at large, faces as he takes office (and please know, gentle reader, I would be writing at least much of what follows here on out even if we were, instead, about to inaugurate a President John S. McCain 3d!):

It is ever dangerous for one to claim to see too many parallels between unfolding events, the eventual historical effect of which will not be clearly seen for years- if not decades, and seemingly similar eras of the past: as dangerous as, at one and the same time, not seeing enough of a similarity (that proverbial "those who do not know History are condemned to repeat it"). Yet this has not at all prevented the historian- whether professional or rank amateur (such as myself)- from seeing many a parallel with the situation as- to take just one such obvious example- Franklin Delano Roosevelt was about to take office as President of the United States.

To otherwise try and gauge how the events surrounding Barack Obama's Inauguration truly compare to that earlier one (as difficult as this might be for me to actually do well), I went back and looked over contemporaneous accounts of that event. For one thing, I took a good, long look at a facsimile the front page of the New York Times for Saturday, 4 March 1933- the very day FDR was sworn in: the then-8 column broadsheet contained a 5-column 3-line main headline (complete with a photo of FDR seated in a formal pose) above several articles foreshadowing the day's events (there are other eery- if only in retrospect- foreshadowings on this front page as well, by the way, such as a single column article about the Japanese army having just taken control of Jehol [modern Chengde in the People's Republic of China], the capital of Inner Mongolia [there are even reports of retreating Nationalist forces hoping to use the ancient Great Wall itself as a useful buffer against Japanese encroachment on 'Peiping' (modern Beijing)]: unlike those who actually read this newspaper on that very day, one seeing this account nowadays can well hear the distant echoes of the later Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on what FDR himself would call "a date that will live in infamy").

Yes, indeed- there are similarities, to be sure: one article details the large crowds arriving in D.C. for the Inauguration and how the peddlers of inaugural souvenirs were being kept busy and there is reference to keenest interest in what the new President might have to say about the rather dire position in which the country then found itself; another article describes "[t]hat sense of anticipatory tension which falls upon a city forewarned that it is to witness the turning of a page of history" (though, as ominous as this verbiage might ring to a modern reader well schooled in the history of a Great Depression and the ensuing New Deal that one [such as myself] is far too young to have actually experienced, there is the distinct sense- on closer reading- that both the 'anticipation' and the 'tension' so noted was, on the whole, quite hopeful in tone and timbre and, thus, well mirrors the national feeling we can see now in mid-January 2009); there is yet another article describing the President-elect's advisers' efforts to get the major financial institutions to sign on with his still-veiled plans to deal with the economic crisis of the time once he has taken up the reins of power.

But there is also much that is very different: FDR's economic plans, as I just hinted, were- for the most part- a closely guarded secret up until almost the very moment he took the Presidential Oath; Obama's. meanwhile, have been openly discussed pretty much since he was first elected- certainly since he named his chief economic "team" not long thereafter. There is also- now in 2009- not the same frenzy of frantic activity in the days leading up to FDR's Inauguration as politicians on the State and local level more than three-quarters of a century ago now wrestled with a banking crisis that was well spiraling out of control and, as part and parcel of this spiraling, spreading well beyond their respective jurisdictions: the final two columns of the 4 March 1933 Times' front page details the efforts of the Governors of the two States of the Union most tied into the American financial system, New York (of course) and the Illinois that contains Chicago, to try and stem the tide as best they could by unilaterally declaring banking holidays to be in place until after FDR himself had taken office- for none of the various and sundry oversight, or even "safety net", existing today was yet in place back then. Today's economic crisis has, as at least one of its elements, the failure of oversight; that of 1933 seems, far more, to be about the abject lack of such oversight

There is also one more, interesting departure from the earlier era: the economic crisis that gripped us back in 1933 was seen at the time as an American problem with which the States of the American Union were individually unable to deal: FDR's job- as seen by those voters who elected him- was to see to it that the Federal Government might provide a more effective national response to the crisis than that which the outgoing Hoover Administration was willing, or even able, to provide; what is being faced in 2009, on the other hand, is principally seen as a global problem with which individual Nation-States, including the United States of America itself as a whole, are unable to deal with on their own and President Obama is largely viewed as a man who can move the world in a way that George W, Bush could not. The premise is quite different, as the times and technologies available are also quite different-- and, therefore, so are the ramifications for the success or failure of the incoming Obama Administration.

Yet there are also well to be heeded warnings from so long ago, even from the lips of FDR himself:

Roosevelt opined, in his First Inaugural Address delivered that long-ago Saturday early afternoon (under the old pre-20th Amendment timetable based solely on tradition [for it was never determined, with any finality, whether the outgoing Administration- and Congress, remember!- went "out of business" at Midnight on 4 March or later that day (and, if later, precisely when!): the outgoing President, essentially, worked for free for the better part of that day (and this, too, is noted in an article in that day's Times about Herbert Hoover's last paycheck, for the period through Friday 3 March!)], the new President typically was sworn in a few minutes after 1 o'clock p.m.), that the economic crisis he was inheriting was "primarily" because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated.

True, they have tried, FDR went on to point out, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence.

Yet isn't this precisely what we have all been mainly hearing since the current debate and discussion over the so-called TARP (in case one might not yet know this, it stands for 'Troubled Assets Relief Program') plan (commonly referred to as "the Bailout") first emerged in the midst of the General Election campaign this past mid-September? Isn't this- lending money so that more money can thereafter be lent, concomitant with pleading for consumer confidence- still what is seen as most "being on the table" of our Politics- not only that of the outgoing George W. Bush Administration, but also from new economic masters who will be taking over upon the installation of the incoming Administration?

They have no vision and, when there is no vision, the people perish, FDR further declaimed. The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths.

One of the major efficacies of the American Constitution is in its timeless principles having- despite being set down on parchment- ever proven adaptable to the difficult twists and turns American History has taken since its original implementation. Thus, "vision" fairly demands that America's "ancient truths" (though, yes, perhaps not as ancient as what lies behind the cultures and civilizations of many of you able to read this piece, thanks to the Internet, elsewhere around the globe) have to- yet once more- somehow be made adaptable to the new, and difficult, circumstances our new President now faces.

FDR himself noted, on that early March day, that- because of its inherent resilience- the Constitution has met every stress of vast expansion of territory, of foreign wars, of bitter internal strife, of world relations and, further, that [i]t is to be hoped that the normal balance of executive and legislative authority may be wholly adequate to meet the unprecedented task before us. But, he went on, it may be that an unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure.

Therefore, if necessary, FDR warned his countrymen, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis- broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe. For the trust reposed in me I will return the courage and the devotion that befit the time: I can do no less.

A President Obama and his advisers are, likewise, going to have to do no less and, at some point, will have to well confront that admittedly often overstated notion of "Thinking Outside the Box" in order to as well confront the current economic crisis (as well as the other crises out there not so patiently waiting- the War on International Terrorism, for one), whether they do so straight on come Day One or not until later, as yet unforeseen, events might otherwise force their hand. How well- as well as how quickly- they do so will go a long way towards determining whether Barack Obama will, or will not, so "fall" in the eyes of later History.

No, perhaps January 2009 is not nearly so dire as was March 1933: yet, as was once said by vocal protesters on the streets of Obama's own Chicago during yet another trying time in Our Nation's History- a time now more than four decades ago:

the whole World is watching... the whole World is watching... the whole World is watching.


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