On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.
— President Barack Obama
Barack Hussein Obama's journey to the White House began in Boston a little more than four years ago, when he electrified the Democratic National Convention and captured the imagination of so many in the television audience.
In retrospect, it all seems of a piece: suitably fitting, almost ordained. A star was born in the precincts that spawned the American Revolution; birthed the abolitionists who battled slavery; and played home to the nation's youngest elected president, 43-year-old John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was also the nation's first — and only — Catholic chief executive.
There was, however, nothing inevitable about Obama. When he announced his presidential candidacy after only two years in the United States Senate, his dream seemed, if not improbable, certainly presumptuous.
Obama out-thought and out-organized his opponents to win the Democratic nomination. He and his running mate, Delaware senator Joseph Biden, offered the nation a profile in competence and a realistically humane vision for a challenged future that made the choice between themselves and the inadequate Arizona senator John McCain and the even more problematic Alaskan governor Sarah Palin seem clear cut.
A crowd of as many as two million gathered in Washington to witness Obama's inauguration. The numbers were historic. And that was fitting for the man who made history by becoming the first black president. That so many are so invested in Obama is a tribute to his superior political skills, to his promise to meet the adversity of an uncertain and perilous future with a resolve rooted in honesty and plainspokenness.
Words are Obama's medium. The English language is his instrument. Obama's inaugural address may have been less stirring than some expected, but upon reflection, it was powerfully conceived. The new president calibrated his words carefully to keep expectations from soaring unreasonably. But in the process, he unmistakably renounced and rebuked the dismal and shameful junta-like government of his predecessor, which punished the poor, compromised the working and middle classes, and waged a dangerous and foolhardy war in Iraq.
The personal grace with which Obama was able to acknowledge the service of President George W. Bush while unreservedly damning the Bush legacy suggests the making of a leader more sublime than the nation has seen in a very long time. It was a piece of political theater that would have challenged his fellow Ivy League predecessors — Franklin D. Roosevelt and JFK — who, in their day, were considered the smoothest acts to occupy the Oval Office.
Obama's style, personal and rhetorical, is, of course, his own. But for people familiar with the idioms of American music, Obama conjures the sense of vigorous ease that was the hallmark of Duke Ellington.
There is no doubt that in the coming months and years Obama will need every ounce of vigor he can muster. The economic deterioration is fast outpacing Washington's ability to cope with it. A very vague end might be in the making for the Iraq War some time in the next two or three years. There is no end in sight for the war in Afghanistan, which seems destined to end up as an Iraq-like quagmire — that is, if it is not one already. And the huge, multi-billion dollar costs of caring for those wounded service men and women will not only pack a budgetary wallop that has until now been taboo, it will strain the resilience of a health-care system that is already out of whack.
As Obama unabashedly acknowledged, the nation's mettle will be tested in ways that only our parents and grandparents have been. But this is not the occasion to dwell on the obvious challenges Obama and the nation faces.
This is a time for the nation to regain not only its sense of common purpose, but its sense of collective pride; perhaps each of us can now understand the prescience of Michelle Obama when she said, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country . . . not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction and just not feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment."
Obama has pledged to "lead once more." America — and the world — is ready.