Mr. Barack Obama is officially the 44th president of the United States. His inauguration Tuesday was the culmination of a historic process and a moment that many had dreamed of but never expected in their lifetime. Mr. Obama takes office amid a landscape of “gathering clouds and raging storms” as he called it in his inauguration speech, but his supporters remain jubilant and even his detractors are hopeful that he can rally his nation to surmount the formidable challenges that lie ahead. He will need all of their help, all his skills and a good dollop of luck to succeed.
Inaugurations are celebrations. They are intended to mark a change of government — the victory of one candidate and his party — but continuity too: The occupants of the White House may change, but the nation — its values, ambitions and goals — endures. For the millions of people who joined the festivities in Washington or watched them on television around the world, the focus was on change: the departure of Mr. George W. Bush and the beginning of a new era in the United States. Mr. Obama acknowledged as much when he proclaimed the beginning of “a new age” for his country.
While inspirational, Mr. Obama’s inauguration address will be remembered for being more sober than soaring. He blamed many of the country’s problems on “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.” The most important lines are likely to be his call for “a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.” Thus, “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America.”
It will be a long and difficult assignment. The economic crisis is the first priority, but “the war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred” will not abate while the U.S. focuses on other tasks. And that catalog of chores is long: “Health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.” The United States’ image has been darkened by the “false . . . choice between our safety and our ideals.”
More corrosive is a cynicism that saps the country’s will and confidence, and “a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.” To those cynics, his response was succinct: For those “who question the scale of our ambitions . . . their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.”
Like all presidents taking office, Mr. Obama called on his nation to unite in common purpose and end “the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.” That message propelled candidate Obama into the White House; putting it into practice is another matter. But if the transition period is any indication, with its outreach across the political spectrum to friends and foes alike, this administration may realize that ambition.
To the millions of people watching from beyond the U.S. borders, he announced that the U.S. is “ready to lead once more.” Yet in a reminder of how his approach to leadership differs from that of his predecessor, Mr. Obama noted that “Greatness is never a given. It must be earned.” That means listening to friends, talking to enemies, inviting those “on the wrong side of history . . . that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
Some dismiss Mr. Obama as naive, but the recognition that “power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please” is anything but. As he explained, “our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”
Those are noble words and they will be the yardsticks by which the world judges Mr. Obama. But words alone will not suffice: Improving the lives of Americans is his top priority, and that will be difficult during an unprecedented crisis. Fortunately for him, the American people appreciate the scale of the challenges and, while optimistic, they have lowered expectations for immediate results. Overwhelming majorities, in both parties, believe the future looks bright and think Mr. Obama will make the right choices.
That is the sort of realism that the U.S. needs. Hard choices and hard work are needed to restore the U.S. economy and its standing in the world. Those choices are bound to disappoint some, but the prospect of alienating friends and foes does not make them any less necessary. Mr. Obama, who has acknowledged that he is sometimes a blank page upon which others project themselves, knows that popularity is not the real measure of success. And if Mr. Obama needed a reminder of that simple truth, Wall Street provided it: While the new president basked in the festivities, U.S. stock markets dropped more than 4 percent, one of the worst Inauguration Day performances in more than a century. Good luck, Mr. President. You will need it.
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