Democracy’s triumph

George W. Bush’s presidency has reached its finest hour: its end. This was a presidency that illustrated not only the great power but also the weaknesses of modern democracy. Tomorrow, Barack Obama will be sworn-in and, according to protocol, Bush will leave the Capitol by military helicopter to live out the rest of his days in the reflected glory of a past presidency. The pomp and ceremony, the flags and shouting crowds smack of imperial grandeur – but in essence they are the absolute opposite. This is the paramount celebration of democracy: the peaceful and hopeful handover of power in accordance with the wishes of the people. Not long ago, such a change of leadership – from the representative of a dynasty to a member of a downtrodden minority – could only have been achieved by revolution or coup d’ etat. Apart from a few bright exceptions in the long march of the human race, a leader left office either dead (by natural demise or violence) or when banished (perhaps with his ears and nose cut off to prevent dreams of a return). One of the triumphs of American democracy is this peaceful succession in the leadership of a nation descended from countless other nations. An even greater triumph is that this collective identity is based on respecting the value of the citizen as an individual. All this comes together in the election of a man of humble origins, as he might be described, to the most powerful office of the most powerful nation of our era. This very civilized handover of power takes on even greater significance when one considers that Bush’s presidency is widely regarded as an unmitigated failure, as eight years which undermined his country’s standing in the world and exacerbated the differences and inequalities among his own people. A leader is judged by his ability to handle crises as well as by the team he puts together to achieve the best possible results. Time and time again, Bush appeared incapable of understanding what was happening, what was at stake and what the desired objective might be. He was marching in the dark and leading his nation from one defeat to another. From civil defense to environmental policy, from the invasion of Iraq to the untold billions squandered in that country, the Bush administration’s decisions stood out for the way in which they benefited a small group of people around him, who either represented business interests or promoted ideological agendas. These people exploited their power to divide their country and the world into «us» and «them.» The use of torture, the unprecedented wiretaps on people (Americans and others) and the ever-growing chasm between rich and poor showed their absolute indifference toward the country’s image but also toward the substance of what makes the United States great. Bush’s people declared themselves to be superpatriots, while undermining their country in the worst possible way. One cannot hold Bush accountable for Islamic terrorism and the collapse of the credit system, because the seeds of catastrophe had been sown long before his term began. But all his weaknesses as a leader of this particular team of aides made the problems much greater, to the point of catastrophe. The power and the weakness of American democracy is that its leadership’s decisions have such great consequences for its own people and the rest of the world as well. The greatest strength of democracy is that it enforces the alternation of leadership, giving the people the opportunity to demand something else, a change of course or the restoration of a lost direction; its weakness is that fixed terms of office (except in extreme cases such as the impeachment of Richard Nixon and his resignation) allocate a set period of time to leaders who should be relieved of the burdens of office long before their mandate expires. Tomorrow, Barack Obama will swear to defend the Constitution of the United States. George W. Bush swore the same in 2001 and 2005. What Obama does with the great challenges facing him will show whether he, at least, is a man who honors his oath.

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