change.gov arrives at whitehouse.gov

It was fascinating to note today that – even as the inauguration of President Barack Obama ran a few minutes late – the web was punctual to a fault. At the stroke of 5pm GMT, the old Bush whitehouse.gov website disappeared for good, and a new era had dawned on the web.

whitehousegov

The new website brings together all that was good about the highly regarded change.gov site that represented the Office of the President-Elect online for th last two and a half months. Its stylish, it’s vibrant, it’s young; it reaches out and asks people to engage with their political leaders and there’s even a blog on the front page with the first post written by the Director of New Media for the White House.

It’s all in high contrast (pointedly and intentionally) to the Bush version of the whitehouse.gov site which it replaced, which was pretty but a little chintzy, stylish in an unexciting way. It had a shaky start when it seemed that no one in the incoming Bush team had realised that the Clinton administration would take the old whitehouse.gov website out the door with them, and so in the first few days there was a decidedly poor temporary site while they scrambled to get up to speed. But then, it’s easy to forget that back in 2001 the web was no where near as central to communications as it most surely is now. Back at the start of Bush’s first term, a website simply wasn’t a priority: but as we start the administration of President Obama, it’s clear that this website is very central indeed to their way of thinking about communications.

While I made a point of checking in to see the whitehouse.gov transition, I confess that I didn’t use the Internet too much for the inauguration itself – just a quick occasional glance through Twitter to see what people were talking about. It was fun seeing people complain about the BBC commentators talking over the John Williams/Yo Yo Ma musical interlude; everyone hated the poetry recitation; lots of rumours about the Neocons contesting Obama’s legitimacy as president because of the fumble over saying the oath. And so on.

Mainly though I just wanted to see the raw pictures of the ceremony, for which good old fashioned linear television was the best, while the Internet overloaded and streaming video feeds stuttered to a halt. So I watched the BBC coverage of of the former presidents arriving (Bush Senior looking unexpectedly frail; Jimmy Carter looking like he was enjoying every last minute of it all and looking younger than his years); of the Obama children delighting in the event and taking pictures from the Capitol (I wonder if they’ll post them on Flickr?); of the parade up Pennsylvania Avenue with Obama and his wife getting out twice to talk and wave at the crowds. And while it’s not nice to take pleasure in another’s discomfort, I’m afraid the sight of Dick Cheney having to be pushed around in a wheelchair was disturbingly satisfying.

Of course, the central piece of it all was the speech Obama made. Would any speech have satisfied the incredible weight of expectation heaped upon it? Almost certainly not, and it seems we were left hanging for that single striking phrase to sum up the Obama vision in the way that JFK had “Ask not what your country can do for you …” and FDR had “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” We waited for such a phrase and it didn’t come; but perhaps history will find it for us, because even those greatest inauguration speeches didn’t really sound all that striking at the time. And just to show how contemporary analysis of a speech can completely misjudge the situation, we only have to go back to Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg which contained the self-view that “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here …” – words that still ring out to anyone remotely interested in political and American history.

Instead we got a sombre, serious speech. It started so downbeat that you could almost imagine he was having second thoughts about coping with the mess he’d been landed in, and was eyeing the fire exits. But he’s right to lay it on the line and not raise false hopes and expectations when the way ahead for all countries is likely to be fraught for several years to come. But for all that, there were some great sections in the speech, and I’ll nominate the following as key moments in a speech that really laid out a manifesto of a serious and determined leader:

  • Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met.
  • On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.
  • We understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned.
  • We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.
  • What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.
  • As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.
  • For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.
  • To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
  • Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Or the line that best sums up Obama’s theme for me, and which reminds us of JFK: “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility … This is the price and the promise of citizenship.”

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