The pictures of the massive crowd – an estimated 1,5 million people – converging in Washington DC for the inauguration of the 44th president of the USA, have been broadcast around the world. I was one in the sea of people bracing a bitter cold (minus 5 C) winter day.

The pictures of the massive crowd – an estimated 1,5 million people – converging in Washington DC for the inauguration of the 44th president of the USA, have been broadcast around the world. I was one in the sea of people bracing a bitter cold (minus 5 C) winter day. Never before did I find myself in a crowd of this magnitude, moving along shoulder to shoulder through the streets of Washington DC to and from the famous mall in front of Capitol Hill. The stream landed me at the foot of the Washington monument where I had a perfect view of the White House, Capitol Hill, a big video screen to follow the inauguration and at people as far as the eye could see.

People from all corners of the US but also from other countries from around the world. Among others I ran into a Pole, an Argentinean and a group of Surinam Dutch. I would not have recognized them amongst the many Afro Americans were it not for their loud singing of an old Dutch song: ‘We zijn er bijna, maar nog niet helemaal….’ (We are almost there, but not fully yet…). Like me they had come to celebrate the inauguration of the first Afro American president, American citizens I met, from Texas, Tennessee, Connecticut, Wyoming and from many other places, responded enthusiastically learning I had come from Europe to celebrate with them.

I found myself surrounded by Americans of all walks of life, all generations, all colours and, I imagine, of all religions. A truly multicultural assembly of people gathering in a most dignified and upbeat spirit. Finding myself in this unprecedented mass of people, at no moment did I encounter any bad tempered or unfriendly people. Engaging people in conversation, the non-white people I talked with felt tremendous pride in the historic occasion of Obama’s inauguration as their president, the ultimate confirmation of the equality guaranteed under the Constitution but denied in daily life for so many for so long. It reminded me of a similar sentiment I encountered in South Africa among the black population in 1994 following the first general elections that ended the apartheid era. But also white people felt equally proud about how far the country has come since the dark days of the racial killings in Alabama 50 years ago. It was moving to experience how relieved people that I was surrounded by felt that this day, their day, had come and that they wanted to be there regardless of the freezing temperature.

What struck me in the inaugural address was that Obama did not beat about the bush on the seriousness of the economic crises. He did not avoid ‘beating’ on Bush when stating:

‘Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some’. ‘That the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.’ 

At the same time he expressed ‘our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.’ ‘Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met.’ His oratory skills were once again on display in telling the Americans in no uncertain terms how serious the economic crises is while at the same time unifying the American population around an optimistic, future oriented agenda appealing to the values that make up the ‘American dream’ of which Obama himself is the embodiment.

Obviously, I listened with special interest to the sections in his address dealing with his approach to the rest of the world. The language he used could not be more different from the language of the Bush administration. I quote a few paragraphs which summarize the shift in foreign policy.

Recalling earlier generations, Obama stated that: ‘They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering of qualities of humility and restraint. We are the keepers of this legacy…’

‘We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swell of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.’

‘To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.’

‘To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.’These few paragraphs set the tone for a constructive engagement with the rest of the world in addressing the series of crises that we face today; from the economic and financial crises to the climate, energy, food and clean water crises, to the proliferation of all kinds of arms, nuclear materials and drugs. Dealing with these crises does not only mean a renewal of the American union but also a reinforcement of multilateral agreements and institutions to manage the resources of this planet responsibly and peacefully.

Madeleine Albright aptly captured Obama’s mission: ‘He has to redesign the plane while he is flying it’. In fact, this is the challenge every responsible political leader ought to address in today’s world. In my opinion, Obama’s election provides that rare opportunity for renewed international cooperation to redesign the institutions and procedures that have failed us so far in guaranteeing our common humanity and in providing human security for all citizens of this globe. Today, we are living in a multi-polar world, hence, we all share the responsibility for responding positively to this opportunity.

There is, of course, much debate about whether President Obama shall be able to deliver. However, there can be little doubt about his determination to be a transformative president and the dynamism he expressed during the transition phase to prepare the implementation of his agenda. Opinion polls show that the American people realize that restarting the economy and implementing the promised changes will take years and that expectations for quick fixes need to be tempered.

To implement his agenda for change, President Obama does not only have majority support in Congress and the Senate, but he inherits from his successful election campaign a network of millions of grass- roots volunteers who can be mobilized instantly by sms or similar electronic communication tools. In fact, they expect to be mobilized in the period between elections. It promises to bring into play a new political dynamic in support for necessary legislation and in overcoming the powerful special interests which are often aimed at preserving the status quo and which have dominated policy- and decision-making in Washington DC for so long. From a perspective of deepening democracy and bringing government closer to the people – in making government ‘work’ by delivering on its promises – it shall be interesting to monitor how this potential for direct participation through electronic-democracy will complement and interact with the formal representative democracy institutions and what lessons can be learned from this.