There were many familiar themes in President Obama's stirring Inaugural Address. Renewal. Sacrifice. Change. Challenge. Strength. Respect. One worthy of a closer look here, however, is the theme of humility in the face of adversity and challenge.
It is no accident that the fifth word out of the new president's mouth a little after noon on Tuesday was the word "humbled." Later in his speech, he talked about "the tempering qualities of humility and restraint" and said that the nation remembers "with humble gratitude" the brave and vigilant members of our Armed Forces on guard here at home and around the world.
The use of these words and this theme is not just tired, empty rhetoric from the mouth of politicians. It is, instead, part of a larger message that the new administration has tried relentlessly to get across to its friends and foes, foreign and domestic. It is a brave, new, refreshing message in the world of politics; a message that our new leaders recognize their limitations, understand that they will make mistakes, and believe that they can succeed better and more quickly in their plans and goals only with help from those of the rest of us who are willing to come to them with good deeds and constructive ideas.
Ever since the election, President Obama and his tribunes have gone out of their way to express this notion of humility in service. During a press conference on the economy a few weeks ago, for example, Mr. Obama made a point of declaring that his administration has "no pride of authorship" in the economic stimulus plan that must now go forward. Anyone who has a good idea that might help solve the mess should step forward and step up, the incoming president said. It's a pragmatic approach at a time when practical solutions seem absolutely necessary.
Mr. Obama then repeated his "no pride of authorship" statement a few days later in an interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos. And the nation's new leader has not been alone in signaling a new willingness to partner with those willing to help. Last week, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney-General-designee Eric Holder declared over and over again with great humility and candor that he would call upon the Congress for help in crafting the nation's new anti-terror policies. The 21st-Century form of realpolitik is here. It's called: we don't really care who helps us solve our problems so long as they are solved.
These acknowledgments—these humble recognitions that even our smartest leaders do not pretend to have or will dare to offer us easy answers-- come in stark contrast to the words and deeds of outgoing administration, which eschewed the Congress in the name of a "unitary executive theory" and "signing statements" and whose leader, President Bush, at one point deep into his term could not list a single mistake he believed he had made in office.
It is hard to see how such humility from a man, President Obama, who right now has so little to be humble about, can be a bad thing in this age of cynical governance. And an administration that has so much to do, with so much at stake, can only be aided by letting its constituents know from the get-go that it has the capacity both to lead and to follow; to implement but also to hear. The American people seem eager to respond to that new message; they seem ready to talk seriously to their leaders and not just listen to them.