Obama’s Post-American America

I’m not going to get too involved in unpacking President Obama’s inaugural speech. I was somewhat surprised by its soberness, but these are, after all, sobering times. But I do want to mention three things that struck me in terms of his treatment of America’s place in the world. First, the scriptural reference to putting away childish things, and the idea that America must mature as a nation. Second, the line about “the world is changing, and we must change with it” — almost unheard of in American politics, even if it was followed by a recommitment to global leadership. And third, locating the values that will redeem America not in its power, might and wealth, but in its darkest hours and less affluent past.

The latter is to be expected in a moment that will require hard work and certainly some sacrifice. But it’s almost as if Obama was summoning the emerging world that, in its own way, lives on in America’s national psyche. After all, what community in this nation of immigrants hasn’t arrived with little to nothing, leaving behind a place that had run out of opportunity, to face — on its own scale — the kind of economic crisis America now faces as a nation?

In essence, the message was that the maturity America needs to face its present and future challenges lies in rediscovering the meaning of its origins — humility, responsibility, resolve in the face of adversity. A return to the work ethic that values production over consumption. Of course, in many ways, we have never lost sight of that. But inasmuch as we have, what Obama is proposing is a post-American America. One that, ironically, more closely resembles what this nation represents.