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Inauguration on Higher Ground

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The inauguration of Barack H. Obama was a well-crafted event with a number of intentional messages to reassure some and provoke others. This was a serious affair with very little chanting or shrill enthusiasm. It was rather proud, dignified and unambiguous in its moral focus. Setting the stage for what followed, Obama began his speech with Benjamin Franklin's exquisite contribution to the Constitution: "We hold these truths to be self evident..." He then peppered his oration with the phrase: "The journey will not be complete until..." inferring that justice, equality, peace and environmental health may be delivered in the times ahead. Amen.

Taking the "higher ground" is something the voters expected of Obama four years ago and instead he gave the impression that he had lost his resolve. Here again was the change-maker without the youthful charisma, hardened by years of political maneuvering... more staid, mature and objective. It seems this time around he may use his position to state his beliefs and assert his authority. The gun issue is the first of a list he may feel is his duty to influence due to the "self evident" and serious impact on the safety and well-being of our communities. The danger in staking higher grounds is the temptation to overstep the bounds of leadership. The other danger is that some may react vehemently if not violently, especially those who have held power due to their willingness to avoid moral issues for self-interest's sake.

Instead of creating a political environment of hate and distrust, the challenge is to set forth a vision that aligns with our human interests. The polarity we have seen in the past 12 years between right and left was largely a crafted illusion. Obama first caught everyone's attention speaking at the Democratic Convention in 2004 as a very fresh, freshman senator when he described a future country not of "blue states and red states...but (of) the United States of America!" After the enthusiasm of his first election subsided, his reputation became tainted by the fact that Goldman Sachs alumni played such a strong role in his administration. This skeptical perspective deepened with the management of the financial crisis and the growing divide between rich and poor. Looking back it seems the government made some good "gambles" and profited handsomely on its bailout maneuvers, as did many bankers. History will attempt to untangle that series of events and see what was really happening in the backrooms and the oval office. But now there is a shift and a chance that the agenda will actually become more democratic in the best sense of the word.

For this to happen on a serious scale, as Obama stated clearly, it must be a joint private/public partnership. The government cannot "finish the journey" without the effort of the private sector. This phase is beginning with investment pushing the higher ground due to the event in Sandy Hook that took the lives of innocents. Pension funds are leading the way by divesting from gun companies, but this needs to be a much broader movement to affect the actual prices of stocks in a downward direction that shows they are "out of favor." Adam Kanzer, the Managing Director and General Counsel of Domini Social Investments, argues that this may not happen until the indices that serve as "benchmarks" for public funds begin to remove harmful companies from their lists. He strongly rebuts the argument of funds that it is their "fiduciary duty to maximize profits," citing the prudent man standard. If this is their standard, they should know that standard well. As he reminds us: "The ... prudent man standard... directs trustees to 'observe how men of prudence, discretion and intelligence manage their own affairs.'...It is self-evident that a prudent person would not use her own money to harm her children. It is both callous and misguided to suggest that fiduciaries are compelled to do so." This dilemma for fiduciaries will be resolved when harmful company stocks lose value for good because of the common will of investors, reducing their profitability; likewise, there are multiple levels of profit when investors drive up the value of companies for their positive impact. Benjamin Franklin's phrase "doing well by doing good" is not a new American standard.

Judging by the inauguration's focus on high ground it does not appear that a world with such expressed moral standards needs to become unsexy. Beyoncé, after all, sang (or lip synched) the National Anthem, while her bikinied body was displayed on magazine racks across the country as the "sexiest woman in the world!" Freedom with love and responsibility sets the community free. True freedom is not possible in an amoral and unjust world where people "feel free" to take whatever they can get. The most inspiring moment of the inauguration was the rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. As a picture of the future, here was a richly diverse community of individuals coming together to benefit others with their inspired and joyful expression. That is an image of these United States that sets a high bar for the years ahead.