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Barack Obama's Inaugural Promise

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

THE DAWN of a new presidency is always a time of awe and anxiety. The awe comes in bearing witness to the peaceful transfer of power as a new chapter of national history unfolds. The anxiety speaks to an untested new leader and the challenges he will face. The swearing-in today of the nation's 44th president is a moment of particular extremes: enormous joy, great hope, deep fears.

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Joy, because the nation takes another step in its effort to overcome the stain of slavery and discrimination. A century ago, as John McCain reminded the nation in his gracious election night remarks, Theodore Roosevelt provoked an outcry when he invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House. Now, as Mr. Obama told us last week, "There is an entire generation that will grow up taking for granted that the highest office in the land is filled by an African American. . . . It changes how black children look at themselves. It also changes how white children look at black children. And I wouldn't underestimate the force of that."

The hope lies in the qualities of the man who will swear on the Bible today. Since the election, as during the campaign, Mr. Obama has impressed, inspired and reassured the nation with his intelligence, steadiness, civility and common sense. He seems to combine a sober understanding of the perils the nation faces with a calm confidence that they can be overcome; he tempers that confidence with an openness to argument and new ideas.

Meanwhile, an economy in tatters poses an immediate challenge on a scale not faced since Franklin Roosevelt took office in the midst of the Great Depression. As president-elect, Mr. Obama was as hands-on with the economy as he was skittish about venturing into foreign policy. This was both appropriate and necessary, under the unusual circumstances, and the opening days and weeks of the Obama presidency will benefit as a result. Congressional debate on the Obama-crafted recovery package has been launched; there is every reason to hope that Congress will act by the middle of February. Even so, the recovery is likely to be slow and painful, and the road ahead no less bumpy as the bills come due from the country's failure to address its increasingly dire long-term fiscal picture. Mr. Obama seems clear-eyed about the problem and resolute about tackling it, but so, too, did his predecessors.

The global challenges are just as daunting, beginning with U.S. forces deployed in two wars and extending to fighting in Gaza; nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea; tension between India and Pakistan; suffering in Darfur, Burma, Congo and Zimbabwe. If anything, the war in Iraq, the issue that helped propel Mr. Obama to his nomination, is among the easier items on his international to-do list.

But Mr. Obama sets out with some powerful advantages, and not only of temperament and ability. He has assembled, already, a team rich in experience and pragmatic competence. He is graced with a country that is eager, almost desperate, for him to succeed. In part thanks to the somber and unflappable tone he has sounded since the election, Americans are both hugely optimistic about the Obama presidency, polls show, and realistic about the time he will need to produce results. His popularity abroad creates new opportunities for U.S. leadership.

More than a few grains of salt are called for here. Mr. Obama is a man of great promise but relatively little experience. The hopefulness of recent inauguration days soon gave way to cynicism and disappointment. Each new administration promises to reject the slash-and-burn politics of the previous crowd, only to get caught up in more of the same, or worse. Too often, the way presidents pledged to govern as candidates bears little resemblance to the way they operate once in office. And history plays its own tricks: The challenges a president ends up wrestling with are rarely foreseen on Inauguration Day.

Yet, like most Americans, we can't help feeling something particularly special about this Inauguration Day. Like most Americans, we will be rooting for Mr. Obama to succeed.


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