Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Inauguration by Fire

James Skillen


January 16, 2009

Barack Obama will take the oath of office on Tuesday in circumstances that represent something close to an ordeal, perhaps a trial by fire. The range of difficulties the country faces combined with the exaggerated hopes of some and the suspicions of others may prove to be unbearable burdens. 

One can imagine the young president reflecting on the vast unknowns that George Washington faced at the first inaugural, or the dark clouds of an approaching civil war that hung over Abraham Lincoln at his swearing in, or the unyielding depression that seemed to be strangling the country when Franklin Roosevelt took his first oath of office.

At least three tensions will test the leadership potential of the new president. The first is created by the opposing forces of pragmatic optimism and a crisis of confidence. On one side, the pressure is on for Obama to act, to reverse the unemployment skid, to close the Guantanamo prison, to step into the Israeli-Hamas conflict, to solve all our problems. On the other side, many doubt that deeds, of whatever kind, can solve the problems they will aim to solve. While many Americans are looking for a quick economic turn-around, more than half believe we are headed for a depression. While some believe that more tax cuts are essential, others believe they would be a mistake. Some support more troops for Afghanistan; others say that would be an act of foolishness.

Successful action requires public confidence that the deeds are right and fitting, for if the deeds fail, then the crisis of confidence deepens. But how can confidence be restored without successful actions?

A second tension is closely related to the first. It is the crisis of competing faiths—in ourselves and in others. Americans have prided themselves on their can-do attitude, their self-confidence. Hard working people with faith in themselves can get the job done and create the tools and organizations needed to keep progress going. But what happens when so many of the can-do efforts of self-confident bankers, public officials, educators, and engineers bring about the near collapse of Wall Street, a skyrocketing national debt, the flooding of New Orelans, crumbling bridges and roads, school children who can’t read, and wars that never end? Suddenly, my confidence that others are like me and that we can continue to make America great begins to crumble.

What about Obama? Can I trust him? Possibly, but only if he confirms my faith in myself and brings others along to join me on the right path. But what if he is too patient (or not patient enough) with Congress? What if he doesn’t act fast enough (or acts too quickly) to get our troops out of Iraq? What if he spends too much public money (or not enough) and the problems grow worse? Does faith evaporate?

Finally, there is the tension the new president must feel about how to communicate with the public. Should he convey optimistic confidence or give us a frank assessment of how difficult things are at home and how limited his actions may prove to be in foreign affairs? If he bends too far in the direction of rosy optimism and the problems get worse, then we will suspect him of hiding the truth and leading us astray. If he bends too far in the direction of truth telling and America doesn’t grow stronger, we’ll condemn him for his lack of positive leadership.

The art of statecraft that President Obama needs to practice is that of bringing public expectations into alignment with reality in a process of building trust in careful and just governance. He must act on numerous specific matters, but he need not fuel false hopes of salvation through pragmatism. He must tell us the hard truths about reality, but he can speak the truth in ways that encourage responsible government and citizenship. And the president should demonstrate by personal modesty and sound judgment that America can become stronger and steadier by relinquishing its self-promoting, civil-religious fervor.

— James W. Skillen, President
     Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”