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Obama’s inauguration is symbolic. And symbols have power

Published:January 20, 2009 2:55 am

Enough has been written about Barack Obama’s ascent to the American presidency to denude a large part of various tropical rain forests. And yet,on the day that he will step up to take the oath of office from the Supreme Court’s chief justice and become the 44th president of the United States,it may be that even the amount that has been written and said is in some ways insufficient to do justice to the momentousness of the occasion. For this hand over of power is,in its own way,laced with more significance than almost any that has gone before.

And we live in a world more interconnected than any that has existed before. Thus,today’s inauguration will carry meaning to so many people untouched by,say,John F. Kennedy’s swearing-in a half-century ago. Not just to the young African-American boy in a depressed inner city somewhere in North America who has a role model that is not a musician or a sportsman; not just to his angry older brother,losing faith in the system and “the man” but not realising “the man” can look like him; but to discontented young people in,say,West Asia who will view Barack Obama,with good reason,as effortlessly internationalist; to sad Old Europeans who will be happy to see a more respectful face in the White House; to anyone,anywhere with an emotional investment in the inclusiveness of the American project — and,let’s face it,that’s all of us. The vicious,mindless stream of reflexive anti-Americanism that poisoned world debate too long (including in India,as the events of this year demonstrated) needs to end; nothing is more capable of eroding its power than the image of Barack Obama taking over the reins of the US establishment.

Soon now,Barack Obama will be President Obama. He will be weighed down with responsibility; each choice he makes will be deconstructed and overanalysed,each move he makes will anger some and excite others. Tomorrow,he will be prey to politics as usual. Tomorrow,he will be,perhaps,just another president — if one with more potential than most. But leave till tomorrow the concerns and carping:

today he is not just a president-elect,not just a president — he is a symbol of all that the democratic spirit can hope to achieve,of the promise of power open to all. To a set of ceremonies designed to be heavy with symbolism will be added the moment’s own heavy power. Accept the power of the symbol,and rejoice,at least this one day.

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