Four years ago, as President Obama set a course for “a new birth of freedom,” a sense of optimism permeated his inauguration as more than 1 million people gathered at the National Mall, at public places across the country and locally at the Knight Campus of CCRI, the Warwick Public Library and the Pilgrim Senior Center.
They still gathered yesterday, but the enthusiasm was lacking. Rather, as Darmendra Ramcharran, who was with his daughter at the Warwick Mall food court, put it, the realities of the economy have set in.
“I want to believe things are going to work,” said Ramcharran, a resident of Edgewood who is starting a new job with Johnson & Johnson this week.
Like most of those interviewed at the food court, the economy was on the top of Ramcharran’s list of challenges the president faces in his second term in office.
“I think what everyone wants is for the economy to get back on track,” he said. A close second and third were the deficit, which he sees linked to the economy, and the level of violence that was so vividly displayed in the Newtown massacre.
Ramcharran is also troubled by the divisiveness of politics and fears Obama could be “hamstrung” from the beginning.
In his inaugural address, Obama talked of a generation of Americans “tested by crisis” and of better times to come.
“A decade of war is now ending. An economic recovery has begun. America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk; and a gift for reinvention,” he said. “My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together.”
That means jobs in the opinion of Joseph Sylvestre of Cranston, who with his wife Cynthia, walk daily in the mall for their exercise.
“We’ve got to bring people back to work. That’s what we’ve got to do,” he said. For that to happen, he said the people in Washington “have to start getting together.”
Likewise, he reasons Obama has a responsibility.
“I think he’s going to have to,” Sylvestre said when asked whether he thought Obama could turn things around. “People put him in for a reason. Let’s make that reason work.”
In his speech, Obama struck a theme heard frequently in his campaign for re-election.
“For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship,” he said.
Those words would seem to resound with Monroe W. Young of Providence, who watched the ceremony with his daughter, Sarah. Monroe is not an American citizen, although his wife and daughter are. He is a native of Liberia, West Africa, and is conversant on the history shared by the two nations. The Liberian Constitution is based on the American Constitution.
Observing that immigrants built this country, Young would like to see Obama open the path of citizenship to parents and their children who are aliens and living here. He said he wanted to see the address “to learn and to listen.”
Warwick resident David Rourke said he came early to the Warwick Mall “to get a front row seat.” He needn’t have worried. There were far more empty seats than those occupied and, in apparent disinterest, more people seated on the backside of the giant screen eating lunch and carrying on conversations in small groups.
Rourke, who frequently writes letters to this newspaper and others throughout the state, has also written the president on more than one occasion. Rourke said he received a Christmas card in response to the card he sent Obama, but, so far, has yet to hear a response to his concern over prejudice in hiring. While minorities hold positions as teachers and prison guards in Rhode Island, he said with the exception of Providence, few blacks, Hispanics and Asians are police officers and firefighters.
One of the few younger people watching the ceremony – on a lunch break from her job at a mall store – was hesitant to talk about what she would like to see Obama do in his second term, “because it’s not going to happen.” She wants to see less government, even if it means cutting programs.
For Bete Habek, the answer is simple.
“Prayers need to be allowed in schools. This is America, if he doesn’t like it, he can move out,” he said of the president.
Habek wasn’t asked for his opinion of the president’s call for equality for gays.
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” Obama said.
Obama also said the journey is not complete until citizens don’t have to wait for hours to cast their vote, until immigrants that are “ bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country” and “until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.”
Obama said it is our generation’s task to make “Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American. Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we will all define liberty in exactly the same way, or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time.”
He said we cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.
“We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and 40 years, and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.”