Barack Obama ascends to the presidency today and is a beacon of light for the American dream. So much so that his catch-phrase for his inauguration is “Renewing the American Promise.” For generations, America has been the one place in the world where the myth of “anyone can make something of themselves” serves as the backbone of real and imagined circumstances. While yes, the Horatio Algers and Barack Obamas propagate this grandiose American ideal, there are more struggling actors and unemployed communications professionals toiling around in perpetuity. We also know that not just anyone can grow up to be president, but Obama’s election has shattered that ceiling with 62.98 million cracks. However, the American Promise isn’t that anyone can become president. The American Promise is a deeper promise that simply says: We are all human beings that need to be treated like human beings. No matter race. No matter religion. No matter gender. No matter. We are one. And in order to succeed, in order to evolve, we must treat each other well. We must provide opportunity for everyone. And those that don’t succeed, we must provide the means to help them help themselves.
On Saturday I took a cab home from Manhattan (back to Brooklyn) and when I entered the taxi, the driver did something unique. He asked me a question. He said, “This is my second day driving cab. Is this problem?” I said it wasn’t and when I told him where I was going, he asked if I could give him directions. I thought this was going to be a nightmare of ride, but it turned out to be an eye-opening experience.
As we creeped down Bowery and turned onto the Manhattan Bridge from Canal, I inquired what he was doing before driving a cab. He replied that he was a bus boy at a theater district restaurant. (Which has great pasta, he added) for about four months and wanted to make more money. He thought driving people around NYC would be a short term boost to his wallet, which would enable him to take ESL classes. Incidentally, he was an accountant in Bangladesh before coming to the US a year ago.
When we started discussing the possibilities that lie before him, he turned to me (we were at a red light) and said, “No matter how bad I make it here, it much better than being home.” He began to tell me that with his Bachelor’s degree (of which he was exceptionally, and rightly, proud of) and some ESL classes to help his English, he could find a good paying job…taxi cab notwithstanding. During our conversation, I realized that as troubled our nation is at the moment, it’s still a land of opportunity.
Not everyone can become president. We know this. But anyone can be anything in the US and that is everything. Without fear of recrimination by the government for criticizing it, or without being condemned because of your gender or color (yes, there are inequities that haunt our nation, but we’re making tremendous leaps forward), America stands as that promise parents try to deliver to their children: we will try to make a better place for you to grow up and live in. Unfortunatley, this promise has been eroded over the past several years. But now. But now, with the swearing-in of our 44th president, our first Harvard Law Review president, our first president with both parents holding doctoral degrees, our first president who listens to Dylan and The Roots, the world’s eye is transfixed upon our shores with anticipation, with optimism and with hope that we can, once again, deliver on the American Promise.
Is Barack Obama the answer? Can one man be the answer? I don’t know. But the weight of the past presidency (maybe even the past several) has been lifted by the American population wanting the opportunity. Let’s be optimistic. Let’s hope. But most of all, let’s be responsible to ourselves and to our fellow citizen. This is how we succeed.