Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

January 20, 2009


From remarks at an Inauguration Day Assembly at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, Tenn.

Pablo J. Davis - We'll hear much, rightly, about Barack Obama's becoming the first president of acknowledged African descent.

We'll hear much of his electoral mandate, the strongest of any first - term president in two decades. And his thoughtful, cool, and unflappable bearing, reassuring to so many in these difficult times.

We're right to consider this day historic. But if we see the Inauguration as the end of the story, we'll be making a great mistake. We need to think of this moment as a beginning.

Why? A character in one of German dramatist Bertolt Brecht's plays laments, "Pity this land, that has no hero." To which another character replies, "Pity the land that needs a hero."

Many people, fearful of the times and dazzled by the president - elect's qualities, see him as a political savior.

But there's a trap in such thinking. The presidency is hugely important, but presidents do not achieve by themselves, or strictly from above, or following a detailed plan.

Lincoln's emancipation of enslaved Americans, Teddy Roosevelt's progressive reforms, FDR's creation of safeguards for old age and widowhood - none of these goals sprang fully - formed from the brow of any of these men, great as they were. In each case, strong pressure from the people forced greater goals on the president.

Often in history, the people have led and the leaders have followed. Or, if you prefer, the people have taught their leaders how to lead.

This president, like all others, will on Day One find his desk piled high with IOU's from people and organizations of great wealth and power.

But will he hear from all of the people? Only if we see democracy as more than just elections - as 365- days- per- year dialogue and work between the people and the government.

What I say applies to those who supported Obama in the election and those who didn't.

The issues aren't abstract. Will you have decent work in coming years -- or, indeed, any work? Will you be able to stay in your home? Will you have access to health care? Will the country continue to wage wars, and to what ends? Will our political liberties survive?

Like it or not, government's actions, in our names and with our tax moneys, will have much to say about all this.

Stay informed. Learn about public - policy organizations. And above all let the new president and the Congress hear - - by letter, by phone, by email - - from you, from us, from "We, the people."


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