Among throngs of ordinary Americans in an extraordinary setting, Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in today as the 44th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts. Taking the oath of office in a polarized moment – substantial public approval balanced against hard times, President Obama said, “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
With a theme of hope as his tailwind and a promise of change as his mandate, President Obama vowed to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States to the best of his ability. America is holding a collective breath: will this president save us from a downward spiraling economy, keep us safe from our enemies, and transform a feared apocalyptic environmental disaster in store for the planet? Tall order, but millions are hoping and praying that he is worthy of their confidence.
And while the comparisons to Presidents Abraham Lincoln of the 19th century and John Kennedy of the 20th century are plentiful and appropriate, Obama’s place in history is singular: he is the Jackie Robinson of American politics because he is the first African-American to hold the office, and because now nothing will ever be the same.
“Nobody ever thought a black man would play in major league baseball. Nobody ever thought a black person would sit in the front of the bus. Nobody ever thought apartheid would end in South Africa,” said Rev. George Houser this week. “Never say it can’t happen.”
Rev. Houser, 92, of Pomona, N.Y., is almost twice as old as Obama. A long time civil rights activist who was on a first-name basis with Dr. Martin Luther King, (“he called me George and I called him Martin,”) believes that Rev. King and President Obama, 47, are similar in thinking.
“As Martin Luther King said, ‘The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.’ That describes Obama’s philosophy,” said Rev. Houser.
“Rev. King would exult at Obama’s inauguration,” he said.
He would not be alone; according to a New York Times/CBS poll published Sunday, a large majority of other Americans feel positive about the new president. While there is always a tendency to have confidence in a new executive, President Obama’s numbers are unprecedented, with 79% of people polled saying that they were optimistic about the new president. Of the five previous presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter had the second highest pre-inauguration rating, both with 70%.
“I didn’t vote for him,” said Solomon Meltser, 20, a student from Staten Island. “But I like him and I hope he does really well.”
If the first day is any indication, President Obama is slipping into his new role with ease. With his trademark cool, he told the world that America “…will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”
Surrounded by his young and attractive family as well as his new, hand-picked political friends, Barack Obama began his tenure in a sea of true believers – the crowds on the mall undulating like waves with a million small flags fluttering at once. As for Wednesday, when he wakes up and begins his first full day as president, to paraphrase a Carole King song, will they still love him tomorrow?
“There is no honeymoon,” said Bryan Cooper, the New York County Republican Committee 74th district leader.
That generally blissful interlude is apt to be shortened this year. Like many new couples, the president and the country are facing problems in the pocketbook.
Those problems of the economy have overshadowed or, in some cases, cannibalized other issues, including two foreign wars.
“In Iraq, the president isn’t under as much pressure to get out as people had anticipated,” said Dr. Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute in Alexandria, Va. “People are not dying right now.”
According to Thompson, a majority of Americans feel that a pull-out of Iraq is less urgent now for two reasons: “First, low level causalities and second, the economy has taken the number one priority.”
Thompson argues that Iraq will fall apart if the U.S. withdraws in 16 months, which is the current timetable.
“Iraq is not an organic or natural state – it was originally cobbled together and it has required a dictator to keep it together,” he explained.. “If we leave, they will need to find a new dictator.”
As for Afghanistan, in which President Obama earlier vowed to concentrate American forces, but mentioned in his speech only briefly, Thompson cautioned for realistic expectations.
“It will be a quagmire if we set our expectations too high to win,” Thompson said. “If our goal is to find Osama bin Laden, that’s reasonable and can be done. If our goal is to stop the opium trade, that’s not reasonable. If we want to create a democracy in Afghanistan, we will lose. Some goals are simply inadvisable.”
Moreover, Thompson asserted that foreign wars are not the most pressing issue of Obama’s presidency. “The President is focusing on the economy, not Iraq.”
No one understands economic stress better than the American automobile industry, which recently went looking for a bailout from Congress. Although many people derided the CEOs of the big three for their failure to run their companies effectively, David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, MI, said the public needs to get educated about the auto industry, and that includes the new administration.
“Obama needs to invest the time to understand this industry,” said Cole. “He cannot create policy on a whim. He needs facts, because the automotive industry is not in a recessionary period, we are in a depressionary period.”
Harsh words to wake up to on January 21st, but the reality is, whether expert or layman, the finger points at the economy and the outlook isn’t promising. But, with the right moves, it does look salvageable.
“The mood on Wall Street is one of great caution and upset,” said Bob Lyster, co-founder of Lyster Watson & Co., a hedge fund advisory company in New York. Still, Lyster is hopeful. “I believe that there will be an economic recovery in the second half of this year.”
As President Obama looks forward, there are some who think he also needs to look back. Richard Green, 60, a history professor and community activist at Medgar, is one of them.
“The president must understand and acknowledge the invisible people who paved the way,” he said. “There is an old proverb: you make a road by walking on it. Like Mayor David Dinkins used to say, ‘I can see so far because of the shoulders I stand on.’”
Indeed, President Obama acknowledged those who had come before when he took the podium this afternoon—not only those who “have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation,” but also those who “fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.”
Yet for all the pie-eyed optimism across the country, and for all the advice for the new president from anyone you ask, there is a small group of people who are not as giddy as the rest of the country about an Obama presidency. “For a comic, the downside is there is not much to make fun of,” said Eddie Brill, a stand-up comic and talent coordinator for the Late Show with David Letterman. “Clinton and Bush were such boobs who made big mistakes. The toughest thing you can say about Obama is that he smokes.”
But if Obama’s greatest flaw is that he isn’t an easy target for criticism, than Americans have every reason to be positive on this Inauguration day.