Richard Littlejohn, Daily Mail
Last updated at 8:12 AM on 21st January 2009
For weeks, the Right-wing radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh has been calling it the ‘immaculate inauguration’. And yesterday, it came to pass.
In the event, the speech didn’t live up to the pre-match hype. But, then again, nothing on Earth could have consummated the stratospheric level of hysteria surrounding Barack Obama’s installation as 44th President of the United States of America.
That’s not to detract from the historic significance of the occasion. This was not a day for cynicism. As Obama himself acknowledged, within living memory a man like him wouldn’t even have been able to get served in a restaurant in Washington, let alone ascend to the highest office in the land.
Ignore those who claim it’s wrong to call him America’s first black president, because his mother is a white woman from Kansas. Not so long ago, in segregationist America, he’d have been called ‘mulatto’, a derogatory term for mixed race.
His white mother wouldn’t have stopped him being sent to the back of the bus or given him the right to use ‘whites only’ toilets and drinking fountains.
When I first visited America, as a teenage schoolboy 40 years ago, they’d just put a man on the Moon. But the idea that they’d ever put a black man in the White House was beyond imagination.
The embers of the race riots that swept the country from sea to shining sea were still smouldering and the National Guard was being sent into inner cities and college campuses to brutally suppress demonstrations in support of equal rights.
It is almost impossible to overstate Obama’s achievement, though that hasn’t stopped some people from trying.
Listen to the more messianic of his supporters and you could come to believe that he will bring about world peace, an end to poverty, tame the oceans and conjure up a universally available cure for cancer.
During almost two years of campaigning, candidate Obama did little to disabuse them. Yesterday, however, President Obama struck a subtly different tone.
The rhetorical eloquence was still there, complete with biblical flourishes and the promise of better days ahead, but there was also a pronounced dampening of expectation.
What is apparent is that the one person who hasn’t bought into the ‘Messiah’ schtick is Obama himself. He’s not going to promise what he can’t deliver.
There was something encouragingly Reaganesque in his insistence on the limitations of government. Those who expect him to wave a Big State magic wand are going to be bitterly disappointed.
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Back in November, after his election victory over John McCain, I expressed the fear that Obama could turn out to be America’s Tony Blair. The build-up to the inauguration only served to intensify those reservations — a worrying tendency for grandstanding and rock star idolatry.
Superficially, the similarities are there. But Obama appears to be a more serious character than Blair.
Primarily, he doesn’t seem to share Blair’s desperation to be loved. Blair was like a puppy — constantly seeking approval — always wanting to sit on your lap and lick your face.
Obama is more aloof. He’d like you to like him, but frankly, if you don’t, he’s cool with that, too.
What impresses me most is his grasp of history. Blair saw his own election as Year Zero, utterly disregarding what had gone before. For all his expensive education, he was a philistine with no use for the past.
Obama is well-read and well-versed in the remarkable American story. He appears to understand that he is merely the custodian of a great office — a concept utterly lost on Blair and his sociopath successor, Gordon Brown.
In his speech yesterday, he recognised that what had made America great was the ingenuity and energy of the American people themselves — a potent force which will be harnessed to pull them through the trough of economic recession and foreign wars. Government, he tacitly acknowledged, is nothing without the people. It doesn’t have all the answers.
Can you imagine Gordon Brown — the self-proclaimed colossus who single-handedly saved the world — ever making a speech like that?
Obama has adopted Blair’s big tent philosophy, bringing disparate voices into his administration and neutralising the Clintons by making Hillary his secretary of state.
This may come back to bite him, but indicates a willingness to seek consensus and is in pointed contrast to the ‘either for us or against us’ antagonism, division and bitterness of the Bush and Clinton years.
Like Blair, he comes to office with an almost bottomless well of goodwill and with the approval of a staggering 80 per cent of the American people.
Blair, though, spent his time showboating and squandered his fortuitous inheritance.
Obama has not been bequeathed a great hand. America is embroiled in two overseas wars and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
More than two million people lost their jobs in the last quarter of 2008, and store fronts are boarded up from Wall Street to Main Street.
We can’t know whether he’ll prove to be up to the challenge. The hard work starts today — all the rest is advertising.
What he can rely upon, though, is the extraordinary American capacity for optimism and constant renewal. Even those who didn’t vote for Obama are willing him to succeed.
The new president also has an ability to neutralise opponents. The more extreme Republicans consistently referred to him by his full name of Barack Hussein Obama during the campaign in an attempt to emphasise his father’s Muslim faith.
Yesterday in Washington, he took the oaths of office using his full name, with emphasis on the Hussein, as if to say: ‘And your point is?’
In the face of a global Islamic jihad, the mere fact that the new president is called Barack Hussein Obama is itself symbolic and makes America more difficult to hate — as does his promise to shut down Guantanamo Bay.
That may come back to haunt him, too, if one of the released detainees subsequently hijacks a plane and flies it into the Trump Tower, but it’s a gamble he’s prepared to take to rehabilitate America’s image, especially in the Muslim world.
In Europe, and in Britain especially, people are projecting their own prejudices and ambitions on to Obama.
But, as I wrote in November, if they think he’s going to turn America into a cross between Islington and Sweden, they’re going to be sorely disappointed.
The military/industrial complex is still in place, the markets may be in retreat, but they aren’t going away, and Obama, if he wants to get re-elected, is going to have to govern for all America, not Left-wing intellectuals overseas.
For now, we should all wish him well, whatever our political stripe. Gordon Brown likes to protest that the financial meltdown began in America, to cover his own culpability. But, one thing’s for sure, recovery can only begin in America.
Yesterday was a day to admire. Two million people turned out in Washington at the conclusion of a gruelling, open, red-blooded two-year exercise in democracy which saw a black man make history.
It was inspiring, particularly when contrasted with the grubby stitch-up which brought Gordon Brown to office and the contemptible resurrection of the unelected ‘Lord’ Mandelson as his effective deputy.
It reminded us that for all its faults, the United States of America remains the world’s last best hope.
Immaculate, no. Impressive, undoubtedly.