While millions of people watched the inauguration of Barack Obama this week, a smaller minority might have recognized the musical interlude before he spoke. Not Aretha Franklin, but a version of an old Shaker song called "Simple Gifts" written over a century and a half ago. The tune was made famous by composer Aaron Copland in his symphony "Appalachian Spring" a century later, but few people know the lyrics. And it is all the more interesting why Obama had it as part of his historic celebration.
"Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to come down where you ought to be..." are the opening lines. The song is an optimistic picture of finding a place where tranquility, amidst much bending and turning, is eventually to be found.
The Inaugural Address
In his speech, Obama was focused on where the United States is and where it ought to be. He tried to soar and yet be sober about the future which would be anything but simple. In fact, he admonished the country with predictions of sacrifice and called for Americans to take on more responsibilities for their own futures as well as that of the country. The message was quite clearly that we are not where we ought to be and it will take a lot of effort to get there.
In doing so, he spoke of values that are traditional, on which the path of the country has been built, from which we have often strayed, and toward which we need to now return. Obama sounded at once conservative in underscoring the personal accountability we require toward each other. In the next breath, he sounded liberal in his call to take care of each other. He issued challenges to those who threaten us and an outstretched hand to those who unclench their own.
He spoke of reshaping America and getting a better balance between values and the policies which guide and protect the nation. All of this recalls further verses from the song: "Tis a gift to have friends and a true friend to be; tis a gift to think of others not to only think of me."
The innocent appeal of a nineteenth century Shaker may appear naïve for twenty-first century problems, yet some on Wall Street might do worse than listen to that admonition today.
Turning to Freedom
Gifts are not always simple to give. Being free is a rare gift for most in today's world. Obama noted that his own biography is testimony to the long march involved in getting there. He called it a precious gift to pass on "that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."
The Shaker song echoes the efforts required: "To turn, turn will be our delight til by turning, turning we come round right."
There seems to be a worldwide sense that January 20 represented a turning, and not only for the United States. The inspiration Obama represents is as contagious as other events in the recent past have been. The fall of a wall in Berlin, the election of a former prisoner to be president of South Africa, or the sustained courage of a Nobel Prize winner in Burma or Iran. There are always turnings that can point in hopeful directions.
Whether the United States will "come round right" is not clear. There is much to sort out about what is right. Obama emphasized the need for new measures: whether a government works, not how big or small it is, should be the guidepost. He talked about the price as well as the promise of citizenship, of duties and responsibilities. And he mentioned that the world has changed, and that we must change with it, especially in a context in which the United States will not be able to determine the framework of the changes still to come. Nor will the U.S. be able to determine the rules by which we confront them. There will be competition for explanations and solutions to the challenges we face.
In Obama's speech, there was also an important global invitation involved in this turning. It is an invitation to join in determining the measures as well as the solutions to the challenges we all face. One was extended to the Muslim world directly, another to those who might unclench their fists to take a hand extended in friendship. And to those unwilling, there was a clear warning that they will not outlast the turning. For those watching this effort unfold from outside the United States over the next few years, be they ally or antagonist, it will be important to see the debate over direction as a map of American perceptions of itself in transition. Obama is himself a symbol of transformation but during his administration we will be witnessing a larger transformation of multiple systems, be they political, economic, or even cultural. There will be a reshaping of priorities, capacities, and commitments to reflect the changes we are going to witness over the next few years. It will do our partners good to attempt to understand these domestic forces at work within the U.S. as they attempt to make those same adjustments to a world in which there will be multiple power centers competing with each other.
Yes We Must
It has been said that in moments of crisis, words of inspiration are at once deeds. They may also be gifts to those who feel a need to believe in a better future. Obama's mantra "yes we can" now turns to "yes we must." Not all of the choices and measures of success the president will propose, at home or around the globe, will be met with the same approval he enjoyed on January 20. In dealing with the challenges ahead, he will have to be more than a 'decider'; he will need to be a better persuader, a role his predecessor was unable to fulfill. The ability to create support for a point of view is a measure of the trust and legitimacy in which a country is held. It cannot be taken for so ordered or taken for granted.
Fareed Zakaria has said that "some of foreign policy is what we do but some of it is also what we are." For now, Obama represents in an iconic form what we are or mean to be. He will now be asked to show us all how we can come down to where we need to be.
To do all of this will not be simple. But if Obama succeeds, the resulting gifts will be appreciated by many. The inheritance that Obama has received and will continue to confront will require an implementation of a sense of national purpose we have not experienced in over seven decades. But if we are going to have a chance to come round right, Obama at least started us turning in hopefully the right direction.