More than a million pilgrims journeyed to Washington, D.C., to watch President Barack Obama assume the heavy burden borne by the leader of the free world. More than a million people sat on the Mall. The Great Emancipator watched their backs, Washington’s monumental obelisk stood guard over them and they faced the Greco-Roman Capitol, where the heirs to Rome’s senators meet under the Statue of Freedom.
As the president took the podium, the crowds chanted not “U-S-A,” as they had during his campaign, but “Obama! Obama! Obama!” It was a Caeserist moment, and one wonders whether an aide should have stood behind him, whispering, “Remember, you are only a mortal.” Not since the New Deal has the president presided over a populace so eager for extraordinary measures.
But our president is no triumphant general. He has crossed no Rubicons. He is a scholar of the Constitution, and a diligent American. In some ways, he is more Wilson than Roosevelt: eager to fix the world, but systematically loyal to the rule of law at home and abroad. One might read his professed affection for multilateralism as an attempt to habituate the great powers into a legal system not yet functional. (Consider the great successes of Korean and Iranian nuclear disarmament.)
In late January and early February 2007, I wrote a series of columns about then-Sen. Obama’s young candidacy for the highest office in the land. The News titled one “Conservatives shouldn’t fear Obama’s goals.” I argued then that by tying himself to Lincoln, by emphasizing his Christianity, and by refusing to explicate a far-left political platform, Obama had taken some “conservative” positions. Mostly, I meant that he didn’t confuse Haliburton with Hamas, as some Democrats did, mirroring the Republicans who can’t distinguish between the morals of Al Franken and Al-Qaida. Americans may disagree with you, but enemies want to kill you.
At his inauguration, Obama offered a different sort of conservatism.
The inaugural address — his “era of responsibility” speech — focused on “the price and the promise of citizenship” of a democracy. In that passage, my favorite of the speech, Obama talked about how “our nation relies [on] the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” He praised soldiers “not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service.”
Obama’s service is not the hollow calculation of the suburban high school student who must account for a certain number of so-called community service hours before he graduates. It is, instead, the antidote to the unfettered individualism encouraged by boundless liberty. When we think of our rights and only of our rights, of what we can do and what government cannot, we lose “a willingness to find meaning in something greater than ourselves.”
The government cannot win for us that meaning. Democracy is a good regime and a bad teacher. No official can teach us “the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break.” We need a movement of men and women loyal to this New Patriotism, a citizens’ alliance of the worker and the student and the clergyman, all pledging to realize the better angels of their nature. They can teach us what the Revolutionaries knew: “the firefighter’s courage,” “a parent’s willingness,” the values of “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.”
Obama, “the One,” some right-wingers’ would-be Caesar, has asked us to recognize “that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.” He has taught us the lesson of the obverse side of liberty.
Call it conservatism, and I will be a proud conservative. Or call it citizenship, and I will be a humbled citizen.
Michael Pomeranz is a senior in Silliman College.