The singer Beyonce was moved to tears while serenading the first couple at the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball on Tuesday evening. In an emotional interview with ABC News after leaving the stage, the 27 year-old performer said, "I'm just so proud of my country," a sentiment shared by millions who see in this election a repudiation of racism, of elitism, of entitlement and bullying. Then Beyonce said something about Obama that I found especially interesting. "He makes me want to be smarter," she said. "He makes me want to be more involved."
I believe that "more involved" is exactly the vision our new president has in mind for all of us, and he laid out that vision in his inaugural speech. He called for each of us to become engaged, and if he got through to this one young woman, perhaps he will reach enough of us to move the nation.
Obama started his remarks by acknowledging the mess we find ourselves in, with two on-going wars and an economy in a tailspin, with confidence in some of our greatest commercial institutions on the wane: "The challenges are real . . . . They are serious and they are many."
Up to this point, I have to confess, I thought the speech pretty much just boiler-plate political rhetoric. But then Obama threw down the gauntlet, invoking Scripture to assert that the time has come to "set aside childish things:" our petty grievances, our selfishness, our faint-heartedness. There is work to be done. Government has a role, and he promised that "those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account--to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day."
But government is only part of the solution, and by studying his next few paragraphs we can see how a leader creates and shares a compelling vision. This particular vision is already being acted out by the young men and women who "at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains." These Americans "embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves . . . . it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all."
The fate of the nation rests on the willingness of each of us to do something, whether it's heroic--"the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke"--or simply the daily performance of duty, such as "a parent's willingness to nurture a child."
Obama encourages us, as Kennedy did, to look outward, to find what each of us can do for our country. It is time for us to be givers rather than takers.
Just a few hours after the inaugural speech I saw Obama on a television commercial for usaservice.org. His impeccable timing is not accidental; it's part of the concerted effort he has made throughout his campaign to engage people in every possible way, using ever possible means. Just after noon on Tuesday he spelled out his challenge, and by evening I had already learned of a tool that can help me participate in that presidential vision.
The website tells the stories of what ordinary Americans are doing to make their little corner of the world a better place, and it provides ideas for site visitors. Looking for a way to make a difference? There are dozens of possibilities just a few clicks away. And if you aren't looking for a way to help someone somewhere with some small thing, I suspect the president would say, "What are you waiting for? The nation isn't going to fix itself."
Teddy Roosevelt once said of public service, "Do what you can, where you are, with what you have." For most of us, the opportunities to do good are not dramatic, but what they lack in drama they make up for in volume. Do something, even if it's small; it is the accumulation of those small things that shape a community, that make a great nation.
Obama's vision, that we all have something to add, that, in fact, we all have a responsibility to act, overwhelmed Beyonce. I was touched by how deeply his message affected her and so many millions of others. And as someone who studies leadership, I was impressed with the clarity that message retained after it reached his audience. There was no whisper-down-the-lane loss of focus. In fact, Beyonce's understanding of Obama's message was about as succinct as possible: "He makes me want to get involved."
Because the new president is master communicator, that inaugural message blended seamlessly with the public service announcement I saw on television Tuesday evening. I suspect--I hope--that we will continue to hear this message through many channels and in slightly different forms. It is clear and compelling, its creation and delivery are a model for leaders, and its fulfillment, I also believe, is necessary for us to be a great nation.
The headline in Wednesday's USA Today was "Obama Pledges to Remake America," but I think the paper got it wrong. It should have been "Obama Challenges Us to Remake America." Beyonce got it, and I did, too.
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