At Tuesday’s inauguration, President Barack Obama was measured, realistic, and definitive about the nature of the challenges ahead for all of us in a time of great economic challenge.

He invoked Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country…” by exhorting Americans to work. Obama understands that human energy and confidence shapes the mood of a country and its economy. Pull together, work hard (in our terminology, “win ugly”), but win – the hard message still had the optimism at its heart, and celebrates innovation, imagination, and the human spirit:

“…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.”

It was a leadership speech – in a sense he was filling a power vacuum, since the election definitely, but also filling the moral leadership vacuum that had been left by the Bush/Cheney redefinition of US moral responsibility.

Responsibility played a key role in the speech, implicitly and explicitly:

“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”

An inclusive speech, both in the demographics it appealed to, the different nations of the world, this sums up his understanding that his Presidency is part of the American narrative:

“Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true.”
– US President Barack Obama

Below is a word cloud of President Obama’s inauguration speech. The most frequent words are everyday words that connect us with the challenge ahead.

Less. Today. New. Common. Must. People. Every. Generation. Work.

For the outsider, there is a lot of odd pageantry to the US presidential inauguration, but like JFK’s famous call to action it can have lasting and profound effect.

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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