Obama's speech: A people's history of the United States

The new chief executive reminded us where our freedom comes from -- it's not Washington.

Published January 20, 2009 5:37PM (EST)

The new president's speech was lofty in its language, but its subject was, in some sense, as earthy as it gets. What Barack Obama said today was that the story of American freedom is social history -- the stuff of ordinary people's lives: 

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

The gist of Obama’s argument during the campaign was that the trouble with our politics was that it had nothing to do with what was actually happening in people’s lives. Struggles in cities and towns around the country seemed to have nothing to do with action in Washington, as if it were another country’s capital. This is what Obama meant when he said, “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

Politics, in some sense, is work; it’s the reflection of people’s economic and social lives, from which it springs -- their work every day -- but it’s also a labor we have to perform together.

“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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