Love it or loathe it, the inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th president of the United States represents a tectonic shift in the nation's history. As the Age of Obama dawns, we're not exactly sure where we are headed. But there is a sense that we are going in new and uncharted directions.
And from the looks of the crises — financial, environmental, global terrorism — all around, we're going to go through radical cultural changes regardless of who is in control.
It is, of course, Obama. And expectations are high.
Lifelong Republican and former Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa said in a speech, "The change Barack Obama is advocating ... is a clarion call for renewal."
"This is a season of hope," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA).
The election of Obama, says writer Anna Quindlen, "means that for at least one incandescent moment, America has lived up to its promise — its promise to value people based on their character and not their color; its promise to be wider and greater than its prejudices; its promise to truly welcome immigrants and to celebrate difference."
Say what you will about other presidents of recent years, but they did not inspire such soaring expectations.
People expect to be living in a different kind of country with Obama in the White House. The world anticipates a revised version of America. According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 79 percent of those surveyed are optimistic about the coming years with Obama as president.
There will be ample time for scrutiny, for political suspicion. Already, the fault-finding has begun, and surely it will intensify in the months and years to come. But for one brief midwinter's moment, let's take a breath and contemplate the significance of this historical hinge, this turning point, this monumental event in a nation's lifespan.
The Color Of Change
Though Obama may preach of a post-racial America, his election is inarguably — and especially — significant to people of color in this country and throughout the world. His rival John McCain alluded to the monumental breakthrough in his election-night concession speech.
"A century ago," McCain said, "President Theodore Roosevelt's invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States."
The swearing-in of the first black president of the United States, says historian and author Douglas Brinkley, "is the culmination of the freedom struggle." It's a national marathon of incremental steps that began with the first slavery revolt, continued through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement.
"There is no way we can overdramatize what is happening," Brinkley says. "When he takes the oath of office, there will be a healing. If slavery is our original curse and racism is our national disease, Obama is a cultural healing agent."
Such opportunities for sweeping nationwide expiation, Brinkley says, are rare.
The Global Meaning
For Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat, the election of Obama is a global symbol. "As an immigrant and a child of immigrants and the mother of two young girls born in the United States," she says, Obama's election "reinforces, more than I ever thought possible, the old cliche of the American dream — that everything is possible."
She believes it has "put a great deal of optimism within my daughters' reach. They will never know a world where someone was kept from being president of the United States because he had the same skin color as them."
In a broader context, Danticat adds, "I think the election of Barack Obama ... will be a great example to many countries with large populations of immigrants and people of color that, if we're allowed to contribute, we can offer our best, and our children can contribute on the highest possible levels. Finally, after eight years of a type of darkness, we will be setting the right example for the rest of the world in terms of opportunity and inclusion and, yes, hope."
The victory on Election Day sliced through racial and generational lines. For decades, public discourse in America has been supercharged by the young-old divide and other dichotomies: mainstream versus counterculture; hawks versus doves; pro-Reaganites versus anti-Reaganites. "Since 1968," Brinkley says, that friction "has been the governing energy of the body politic. It was a split-screen food fight."
Now, Brinkley says, Obama presents a new paradigm for America and beyond. "Operating from that healing center is the new governing ethic," he says. He sees Obama's closing of Guantanamo as a symbolic announcement that the United States is changing course — the country will not engage in torture anymore.
On A Personal Note
The election of Obama is noteworthy. So is the man himself. From all appearances, he is devoted to his family. He is self-deprecating, yet confident. He has good manners. He wants to put a basketball court in the White House. He likes dogs.
Embodying the best of American political impulses, Brinkley says, Obama possesses "the calmness of Abraham Lincoln, the oratory of Martin Luther King Jr., and the humor and grace of John F. Kennedy."
He is a masterful politician. He may have changed — for better or worse — the way presidential candidates raise money. He was connected to a vast constituency via the Internet. He took in record-setting amounts of donations online. This tsunami of support can be seen as a way to bring people together to work for a common cause. He is a deft public speaker, and he has written two autobiographies.
"My understanding," says writer Jane Smiley, "is that Obama writes much of his own material. To me, this means that he will be less likely to lie about his reasons, his feelings and his intentions. I think when a president is himself inarticulate, and then is given speeches by people with strong opinions of their own, the president is more likely to say, 'Well, that looks good,' or, 'That seems right,' but not to have actually worked through or thought about those issues."
Through America's nearly 233 years, there have been other turning-point presidents and occasions to rise to. But, for some reason, an unprecedented number of people are expected in Washington for this inauguration. Perhaps it's that Obama — because of his story, or his message, or his hopefulness — offers so many people so many ways to connect with him. There is a sense of participating in a wave of change, a transformative experience.
Someone has described it as "Woodstock with marching bands."
The inauguration of Barack Obama is not the end of racial divisions or generational tensions or global hostility. But it is seen by many as an opportunity for a new beginning. If the U.S. can decisively elect an African-American president, anything is possible. And for one brief midwinter's moment, that's what Jan. 20, 2009, represents to so many people: not just change, but the possibility of more changes — and more changes for the better.