Letting Freedom Ring


"The King is dead! Long live the King!" This is the formula of monarchic succession that the American republic inherited when it broke away from Britain. The President, like the king, is the embodiment of the state and so the succession from one to the next is seamless.

In a democracy, succession depends on a political rather than a physical death: the expiration either of the predecessor’s term limit or his defeat in an election. George W. Bush may have served his full terms, but in this case the ritual signalled expurgation as much as the ushering in of a successor.

The jeering of millions as Bush appeared on the Capitol was unprecedented, but as necessary a part of the ritual as the cheering for Obama. For Bush it was the final humiliation, a symbolic shoe cast by the American public as he was escorted away from the capital to political exile. Obama thanked his predecessor, but his speech was filled with repudiation of the Bush presidency. Behind each sentence lay the failure of the neo-conservative agenda. It was also filled with challenges to the Congress and to Obama’s political colleagues to accept that "the world has changed".

The Americans, unlike their pragmatic Australian cousins, still love and expect soaring rhetoric from their political leaders. Australians seem content to be governed by bureaucrats, but Americans still imagine heroes. One of George W. Bush great failures was his epic failure in oratory. Americans, steeped in a civic history that includes such figures as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, are especially prone to the charms of an orator. Unlike his predecessor, Obama appeared presidential and charismatic. His life story lent him the aura of personal heroism. His position at the head of a movement which drew as much from pop culture as from conventional politics movement allowed millions of Americans to see in him a mirror of their own struggles and heroism.

In Obama, the political sphere has been transformed, just as public spaces have been reclaimed by public carnival for the Inauguration. A repeated theme of coverage has been the unprecedented interest in politics that Obama’s progress has elicited, not only in African Americans and young people, but in small children too. Even Australian journalists covering the live events were on the verge of tears, gripped by the waves of mass emotion that sweep across such national communions.

The neoconservative agenda pursued by both Bush and Howard was predicated on the strangling of the public sphere; the domination of private markets and the privatisation of public space and assets. The state was to be reduced to a management committee for the distribution of the spoils of war. Declining rates of voter registration and turnout typified a mass alienation from the political processes. The Democratic resurgence, of which Obama is now the leading figure, has turned that around. Ordinary citizens have looked to the state and politics again as a place of identification, and as a tool of their aspirations.

In his inauguration speech, Obama performed the tasks allotted to him as the "renewing" president. Throughout, Obama sought to embody the entire nation. He appealed to an imagined national unity — but a paradoxical unity born out of diversity rather than uniformity, declaring "our patchwork heritage is a strength".

He appealed also to an historical unity between the past and the future. Invocations of "change", with their attacks upon the immediate legacy of his predecessor, were combined with an appeal to the idealised past of Lincoln, Washington and Roosevelt — one that is "old" and "true". Obama thus invoked the nation as a union in time as well as space, and of his revolutionary movement paradoxically being one of "restoration".

Perhaps the most powerful, and most challenging message was that of generational change. This constituted a particular challenge to an economic and political elite who are still overwhelmingly older than Obama. In this world, Obama is still the interloper — the man who broke the expected narrative of history. His reference to the War of Independence as "our revolution" also invoked the political revolution Obama promises to his followers. There will, of course, be such times when this revolution too seems in doubt, when Obama’s authority may be sorely tested.

In those times it will be an appeal to the people upon which the new president may have to rely. It is their presence, acclamation and spectacle that imbue Obama with a legitimacy and power that Bush never enjoyed. Bush, who from his earliest days was hounded by protest, was weakened by popular dissent throughout his tenure. Obama’s party controls Congress; but Congress is filled with rival representatives of a disparate people, and the illusion of unity is still that: an illusion.

Finally, it is the power of the popular organisation beneath that will give Obama an unparalleled position of authority. The next four years will reveal whether he uses it to aggressively further the bold agenda suggested by his oratory, or a cautious one suggested by precedent.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.