In the inauguration speech on January 21 marking his second term as President of the United States, Barack Obama returned to the liberal thinking that summoned people to his support and marked him out as a leader who could take the entire world to a higher place than the religious intolerance, racial bigotry, international suspicion, and discrimination against vulnerable groups in which it has languished.
Many people all over the world dare to hope again that he will make a difference this time around. He is the first President to identify discrimination against homosexuals and lesbians as an infringement of their rights and a wrong that cries out for correction.
“Our journey is not complete”, he declared. “Until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well”.
Obama made this statement against the background of the fundamental rights set out in the US Constitution and the famous speeches of American Civil Rights hero, Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
Recalling that all Americas claim to subscribe to the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, he emphasised that “history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing. That while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth”.
There could be no clearer call to action for an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians who also have a right to live in peace and to contribute to their society. It is a call that requires to be heard in every country of the world where people suffer intolerable abuse everyday because of their sexual preference.
He also identified discrimination against women as an offence that must end. In one remarkable sentence, he summed it up. “We are true to our creed”, he said, “when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own”.
He said “a little girl” drawing particular attention to discrimination against women. Such discrimination exists in work places where women are paid less than men for doing the same job, where women are denied promotion because they are also mothers. But, the discrimination is worse in some countries where girls and women are raped with impunity; where they suffer genital mutilation, and where laws still exist that make them culprits even though they are victims.
Obama spoke up for women not only in America, but all over the world. As he moves in this second term to address that scourge on humanity, hopefully the tide he creates will drift to other shores and lift other leaders and societies to enlightenment.
And, he made a significant point about the balancing of spending by governments on developing young people and protecting the elderly. “We reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future”.
This is a balance that confronts not only the United States, but every country in Europe, Japan and increasingly the nations of the developing world.
There is great appeal in Obama’s ministry that “we recognise that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us”.
Despite controversy in the US over Climate Change, Obama also returned to it in this speech. Just two months before, Hurricane Sandy had killed more than 100 people, destroyed whole communities in coastal New York and New Jersey, left tens of thousands homeless, crippled mass transit, triggered paralyzing gas shortages, inflicted billions of dollars in infrastructure damage and cut power to more than 8 million homes.
It had left a similar path of destruction in many Caribbean countries, and future storms will do so again. It was a welcome relief to hear President Obama say, “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms”.
Amen and a sigh of relief to that. Perhaps, the world can now look forward to the US taking a meaningful leadership role at Climate Change conferences where, in the past, it has retarded progress on this deadly issue.
The Obama before his first Presidency had argued for more international cooperation and less unilateralist action by the US in addressing global conflicts. Throughout his first Presidency the use of drones under his personal command has been a blot on his tenure. Many innocent people, including children, have been the “collateral damage” of those drone excursions. But Obama knows that better than anyone else.
The greyness of his hair and the lines in his face tell their own story of the anguish that any President must face in the tough decisions he makes, but especially this man whose stated instincts are for cooperation and peace, not confrontation and war.
He encouraged the hopeful, the peacemakers, and the well-thinkers around the world when he declared: “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully. Not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear”.
If Obama intends to claim an enduring place in the minds of all mankind as much as in the annals of history, he must push in this second term to be the man he so convincingly unveiled in this rousing speech. In this, he will have great support.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is a Consultant, former Caribbean Diplomat and Visiting Fellow, London University)