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Never in human history has the world awaited a single speech as it does today. The globalisation of communication, a shared sense of urgency in the face of economic crisis, conflict and climate change but most of all the magnetic power of the man, who he is, what he says ands how he says it; this is what makes this moment unique and momentous.

Never in human history has the world awaited a single speech as it does today. The globalisation of communication, a shared sense of urgency in the face of economic crisis, conflict and climate change but most of all the magnetic power of the man, who he is, what he says ands how he says it; this is what makes this moment unique and momentous.

Here at the RSA our approach to social change is citizen-centric; we believe the key question in politics is what do we the people want and how are we willing to make it happen? Government is important but real and lasting change requires politicians to articulate, and Governments to tap into, the people’s commitment to progress.

That change lies in the hands of people themselves is a recurrent theme of inaugural addresses, most memorably in the words of JFK: ‘ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country’. The first task for Obama is not merely to restate this theme, but to give it a more vivid, tangible form; to use this moment when the barriers between leader and citizen are lowered to forge a new understanding of every citizen’s place in creating a better world.

I have written a great deal in the past about the idiosyncratic nature of human prediction, in particular our tendency towards personal optimism and social pessimism. Today so many people in America and around the world have so much about which to feel fear yet Obama is a man who inspires incredible hope. The simple story is that we can grow from adversity; how Obama turns this trite hope into a new way of framing this specific moment in human affairs is his second task. 

Yesterday and in others posts I have written about the challenge of sky high expectations. Using this unique moment of public attention and popularity the new President can use today to give one or two of his priorities an almost unstoppable momentum. If, for example, he restates his determination to introduce universal affordable health care, not even the corrupting billons of the US health care sector will dare to be seen to stand in his way; the question will be how, not whether, to make his wish happen. But in many other areas Obama must win permission to be patient and pragmatic. When so many people hope for new certainties, he must – with the failures of his predecessor as an unspoken but powerful reinforcement – continue to maintain that doubt can be a virtue.

I am writing this post in a kitchen in South London. President Obama is not my President. And here is a fourth test. This is America’s moment, the pride of its people is incredibly moving, particularly when it is expressed most strongly amongst those long distant from power. But whether he wants the crown or not, across the world hundreds of millions of non-Americans have elected Obama the leader of the world. This President believes the interests of his country can be aligned with the needs of the world. This is easy rhetoric but hard politics. Speaking to his nation, what signals will Obama send around the world?

I will reflect tomorrow on how the speech has addressed these challenges. But almost whatever President Obama says, we will look back on 20 January 2009 as one of those rare days when our shared sense of excitement and hope felt as tangible and enveloping as a bright sun on a winter’s day.

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