If you don’t understand all the fuss about the 44th presidential inauguration, try to put yourself in the place of African-Americans. Barack Obama’s election has triggered an emotional release, because after a long, painful struggle, they finally “made a hundred,” a reference to the words of a civil rights song that “99 ½ just won’t do.”
You don’t have to be black to be proud of the moment. As Obama said during his inaugural speech:
“This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed – why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”
The inordinate attention to this inauguration is also driven by the curiosity about a man who was relatively unknown four years ago. Americans have entrusted him with their futures, perhaps because he wants to break from the past. He doesn’t appear to operate in the usual political arena where victories and defeats are determined by raw partisanship or cynical deal-making.
Then again, if mere words could achieve goals, the presidency would be a breeze for Obama. If anything, he has raised the stakes – and expectations – with his lofty rhetoric. In the end, Obama will be judged by his actions, and he will be watched as closely as any president in history. In some respects, his success will be determined by the willingness of different groups to realistically assess the political landscape and, yes, change.
For political opponents, Obama’s election does not end the legitimate debates over the best ways to govern, educate children, deliver health care, negotiate with foreign leaders and conduct wars. But ideological foes should take his cue and head for higher ground. For the past two presidencies, Republicans and Democrats have intensified the personal attacks and in the process have grievously wounded their standing with the American people.
As a result, there have been limited results.
For political supporters, Obama’s election doesn’t mean he’ll be a relief valve for pent-up liberalism. He noted during his speech that “the ground has shifted.” And while he was speaking to cynics in general, the point is the same for all.
It would be a mistake to think the ground hasn’t shifted for liberals, too. The government is in tremendous debt and will probably add to it with huge infusions of money to jump-start the economy. Visions of big-government solutions must be tempered with a hard look at basic finances and the effectiveness of current programs.
Tuesday was a momentous day, but the ultimate success or failure of Obama’s presidency will probably rest on whether we can, as President Lincoln implored at his first inauguration, tap the better angels of our nature.