By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 21, 2009 1:22 PM
What a difference a day makes.
Yesterday's inauguration of President Obama represented an epochal shift for this country, from a conservative leader to a liberal, from one generation to another, from a child of privilege to someone entirely self-made, and ever so poignantly, from a white man to a black man.
It also marked the purging of one cultural icon and the rise of another. George Bush leaves office as a symbol to many people of everything that's wrong with America, while Barack Obama enters the White House as a symbol to many of what's right.
Obama, for his part, pulled no punches in his Inaugural Address, casting his presidency as a restorative to Bush's.
"Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America," Obama said.
Though he did not blame the smallness of our politics solely on his immediate predecessor, the message was clear: To Obama, the central meaning of the day was that it represented the long overdue end of an era to which Bush was the capstone.
"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord," Obama said.
"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility. . . .
"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."
You could even call Obama's speech chiding at times. "We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things," he said. "[O]ur time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed."
On national security, Obama audaciously rejected the key tenets of Bushism, declaring that his predecessor's abandonment of core American values and embrace of brute force had amounted to nothing less than a failure of leadership.
"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," Obama said. "Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so, to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more."
Obama continued: "Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint."
David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "Barack Obama's Inaugural Address on Tuesday was a stark repudiation of the era of George W. Bush and the ideological certainties that surrounded it, wrapped in his pledge to drive the United States into 'a new age' by reclaiming the values of an older one."
Sanger saw Obama's speech as "signaling a commitment to remake America's approach to the world and to embrace pragmatism, not just as a governing strategy but also as a basic value."
All of which "must have come as a bit of a shock to Mr. Bush. No stranger to criticism, over the past eight years he had rarely been forced to sit in silence listening to a speech about how America had gone off the rails on his watch.
"Mr. Obama's recitation of how much had gone wrong was particularly striking to anyone who had followed Mr. Bush around the country, especially during the re-election campaign of 2004, when he said it was his job 'to confront problems, not to pass them on to future presidents and future generations.'"
Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "The confluence of events and Obama's politics suggest that his presidency could bring a more momentous shift -- from an era of conservative governance to one in which Washington assumes a more central role in the life of the country.
"Twenty-eight years ago, Ronald Reagan famously used his first inaugural address to declare that 'government is not the solution to our problem.' Yesterday, Obama said, 'The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.' . . .
"It is far too early to know to what degree Obama's presidency will result in a rollback of the conservative era or the beginning of a new progressive era. But his aspirations are among the largest of any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, and he seems undaunted by that fact. 'There are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans,' he said. '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.'"
Christi Parsons and Peter Nicholas write in the Los Angeles Times that "the heart of Obama's first address to the nation as its president was a rejection of the policies and values of his immediate predecessors and a somber call for the return of what he called the traditional American virtues of hard work, fair play, tolerance and sacrifice for the common good."
Susan Page writes in USA Today: "Not since Franklin Roosevelt rebuked Herbert Hoover in 1933 -- 'The money-changers have fled,' Roosevelt told Americans struggling through the Depression -- has the incoming president offered such a stinging critique of the outgoing one in his inaugural address."
The New York Times editorial board writes: "In about 20 minutes, he swept away eight years of President George Bush's false choices and failed policies and promised to recommit to America's most cherished ideals. . . .
"Mr. Obama was steely toward those 'who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents.' He warned them that 'our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.' But where Mr. Bush painted this as an epochal, almost biblical battle between America and those who hate us and 'who hate freedom,' Mr. Obama also offered to 'extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.'"
Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column: "After thanking President Bush 'for his service to our nation,' Mr. Obama executed a high-level version of Stephen Colbert's share-the-stage smackdown of W. at the White House correspondents' dinner in 2006.
"With W. looking on, and probably gradually realizing with irritation, as he did with Colbert, who Mr. Obama's target was -- (Is he talking about me? Is 44 saying I messed everything up?) -- the newly minted president let him have it."
George Packer blogs for the New Yorker: "The speech was, among other things, and in spite of the gracious gesture at its opening, a devastating repudiation of ex-President Bush, who seemed to be shrinking physically as well as historically whenever the camera found him, until, by the end, his unimportance was almost bewildering. Now he is gone."Inauguration: The Big Picture
Peter Baker writes in the New York Times: "Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States on Tuesday and promised to 'begin again the work of remaking America' on a day of celebration that climaxed a once-inconceivable journey for the man and his country. . . .
"Beyond the politics of the occasion, the sight of a black man climbing the highest peak electrified people across racial, generational and partisan lines. . . .
"But confronted by the worst economic situation in decades, two overseas wars and the continuing threat of Islamic terrorism, Mr. Obama sobered the celebration with a grim assessment of the state of a nation rocked by home foreclosures, shuttered businesses, lost jobs, costly health care, failing schools, energy dependence and the threat of climate change."
David Maraniss writes in The Washington Post: "In taking the oath of office as the first African American president in the nation's nearly 233 years, one man reached a singular achievement. But at four minutes after noon yesterday, Barack Hussein Obama was inevitably transformed -- no matter what happens during his administration -- from an individual, a politician, to an icon and a symbol. Here was history at its most sweeping and yet intimate. . . .
"With the inauguration witnessed by perhaps the largest audience ever to assemble in Washington, and with the fit young leader and his wife striding confidently down part of the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route, the day, of course, was about him.
"But more than that, it was about everyone out there in the crowds that stretched from the west side of the Capitol all the way to the Lincoln Memorial: every person with an individual story, a set of meanings and reference points for a moment that many thought would never happen in their lifetimes."
Joe Klein writes for Time: "The millions who trekked to Washington for the Inauguration, who cried their eyes out and cheered their lungs raw, are testimony to the man's sheer inspirational power. Reagan's movement was called a revolution, but this may be more than that -- the beginning of a whole new era of Obama-inspired and Obama-led citizen involvement. . . .
"By the tone and style of his move to power, Obama has shown the world -- and the people living in Sarah Palin's small-town America and even many liberals who had lost hope over time -- a new, gloriously unexpected and vibrant face of our country. The sheer fun of the Inauguration, the world-record number of interracial hugs and kisses, augurs a new heterodox cultural energy, a nation -- as the man said -- of mutts."Word Watch
The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "One curious note in Obama's speech was a line that could have come out of the mouth of George W. Bush: 'Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.'
"Obviously, U.S. military forces are engaged in armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Equally obviously, this nation faces a threat of more 9/11-style terrorism from Al Qaeda and its imitators. But the notion of an undifferentiated war on terror (or on 'Islamic fascism') blinded the Bush administration to important nuances in global politics. Worse, it provided a rationalization for violations of human rights and alliances with unsavory foreign leaders that exacerbated anti-Americanism around the world. The new president, usually so careful in his choice of words, mustn't echo the oversimplifications of his predecessor."
That said, it is worth noting that Obama did not speak about victory in the two wars Bush left him. "We'll begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan," he said.The First 100 Hours
Peter Finn writes in The Washington Post: "In one of its first actions, the Obama administration instructed military prosecutors late Tuesday to seek a 120-day suspension of legal proceedings involving detainees at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- a clear break with the approach of the outgoing Bush administration."
Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post: "In its first hours, the Obama administration took an initial step to put its imprint on the government, ordering work halted on all federal regulations left unfinished at the end of the Bush era until they can be reviewed by the new president's team."
Lolita C. Baldor writes for the Associated Press: "President Barack Obama will begin to put his imprint on the nation's war strategy in his first full day in office, gathering his top military and national security advisers at the White House for what is expected to be the start of the new commander in chief's shift in emphasis from Iraq to Afghanistan."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced this morning: "At 8:35 AM, the President arrived in the Oval Office and spent 10 minutes alone in the office. He read the note left to him by President Bush that was in an envelope marked 'To: #44, From: #43'. At 8:45 AM, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel came in to discuss the schedule of today's events. The First Lady came into the Oval Office at 9:10 AM."The Crisis Without an Obvious Solution
The most immediate crisis facing Obama is also the one that he doesn't yet have a plan to address. Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "The president's advisers watched most banking shares fall sharply on Tuesday, reinforcing what Obama officials have known for weeks: that their most urgent financial problem is an immense new wave of losses at banks and other lending institutions that threatens to further cripple their ability to resume normal lending. . . .
"While Mr. Obama's top advisers view the black hole in bank balance sheets as one of their most pressing problems, they cautioned that they would not be pressured into announcing a plan before they had carefully thought through all the options. Instead, they are scrutinizing an array of solutions, each of which has pitfalls and poses its own risks and dangers."The First Family
Jodi Kantor writes in the New York Times about what may end up to be one of the most lasting impacts of the Obama presidency: "For well over two centuries, the United States has been vastly more diverse than its ruling families. Now the Obama family has flipped that around, with a Technicolor cast that looks almost nothing like their overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly Protestant predecessors in the role. The family that produced Barack and Michelle Obama is black and white and Asian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish. They speak English; Indonesian; French; Cantonese; German; Hebrew; African languages including Swahili, Luo and Igbo; and even a few phrases of Gullah, the Creole dialect of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Very few are wealthy, and some -- like Sarah Obama, the stepgrandmother who only recently got electricity and running water in her metal-roofed shack -- are quite poor. . . .
"Aside from a top-quality education, the new president came to politics with none of his predecessor's advantages: no famous last name, no deep-pocketed parents to finance early forays into politics and, in fact, not much of a father at all."How Long a Honeymoon?
Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times that "there is evidence that, enthusiastic though the public is about the change in power, there are no expectations of quick fixes. The cascade of grim economic news, combined with the calculatedly sober tone Mr. Obama has adopted, has provided him something of a cushion. . . .
"A Times/CBS News poll conducted last week offered at least some guidance for the Obama Expectations Clock. Most respondents said they thought it would take Mr. Obama two years or more to deliver on campaign promises to improve the economy, expand health care coverage and end the war in Iraq."
Dan Balz, writing in The Washington Post, suggests a possibly shorter timetable: "People do not expect miracles or quick solutions to problems that they recognize are enormously complicated," he writes, before adding: "That may change in coming months, depending on how the economy responds to the stimulus package and how sure-footed Obama is in handling the world's problems."
And Jim VandeHei and John F. Harris of Politico decide not to wait even a day, listing "seven reasons for healthy skepticism" about Obama. Among them is that "recent history teaches us to be wary of the larger-than-life Washington figures supposedly striding across history's stage."Whitehouse.gov Watch
It's still very much a work in progress, but the new Whitehouse.gov Web site, launched at the stroke of noon yesterday, promises enormous steps forward in terms of embracing Internet technology and promoting transparency.
In an inaugural blog post, (yes, blog post!) Macon Phillips, Obama's new media director, describes the site's ambitious goals. Among them: "President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history, and WhiteHouse.gov will play a major role in delivering on that promise."
And in a move that will be controversial among the White House press corps, the Web site will apparently publicly post the "pool reports" filed by journalists -- missives that have historically been considered somewhat privileged by their authors. I say hooray. Let information be free.Exit Bush and Cheney
Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The choreography was smooth, the smiles were gracious, but all the same, George W. Bush's exit from Washington still carried a measure of pain. . . .
"[W]hen Bush's helicopter lifted off from the east front of the Capitol, cheers rose from the crowd below and from the throng stretched down the Mall."
Reynolds assessed Bush's mood thusly: "Bush is famously thick-skinned. But as the morning wore on, his smile appeared to grow more strained."
Dan Eggen and Carrie A. Johnson write in The Washington Post that after leaving office, Bush "traveled first to his boyhood home town of Midland, Tex., where an estimated 20,000 supporters gathered in Centennial Plaza for a welcome-home rally similar to a goodbye celebration on the same spot eight years earlier."
Marie Cocco blogs for washingtonpost.com: "My favorite negative image from the inaugural was Cheney looking for all the world like Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter in 'It's a Wonderful Life.' Guess you could say that Potterville has turned back into Bedford Falls."
Slate's Christopher Beam crashed Sunday night's goodbye party for White House aides. Bush visited for five minutes.
"'This is objectively the finest group of people ever to serve our country,' he said. 'Not to serve me, not to serve the Republican Party, but the United States of America.'
"'I am glad we made this journey,' he went on. Then he engaged in a little reminiscence. 'Remember the time in 2003 when Bartlett came to work all hung over?' Laughs. 'Nothing ever changes.'
"He continued: 'We never shruck--'
"'Shirked!' someone yelled.
"'Shirked,' Bush corrected, smiling. 'You might have shirked; I shrucked. I mean we took the deals head on.'"
Surprising pretty much everyone in Washington, Bush left office without issuing a single last-minute pardon. He took only one action: commuting the sentences of two former U.S. Border Patrol agents whose convictions in 2006 for shooting a Mexican drug dealer outraged opponents of illegal immigration.
Salon's Alex Koppelman reacts: "In this 2007 article, I examined the two agents' case and explored how the right had transformed them from two men who'd been involved in an unjustified shooting, and covered it up, into heroes who feared for their lives as they were doing their jobs."
Meanwhile, legal action to secure Cheney's vice presidential documents went right up to the wire. R. Jeffrey Smith writes for The Washington Post about a federal judge's order on Monday, rejecting the claim that Cheney intended to illegally discard some of his official records.
As Smith writes: "One of the plaintiffs, Stanley I. Kutler, an emeritus professor of history and law at the University of Wisconsin Law School, said he remains worried that 'when the Archives goes to open Cheney's papers, they are going to find empty boxes.'"Looking Backward
Scott Shane wrote in the New York Times on Saturday that the acknowledgment by attorney general-designee Eric H. Holder Jr. that waterboarding is torture amounts "to an admission that the United States may have committed war crimes" and "opens the door to an unpredictable train of legal and political consequences. It could potentially require a full-scale legal investigation, complicate prosecutions of individuals suspected of committing terrorism and mire the new administration in just the kind of backward look that Mr. Obama has said he would like to avoid."Last Licks
The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "Like the war that came to define it, Bush's presidency conceivably could be viewed more favorably by historians than it is by the nation that looks forward expectantly to his retirement on Tuesday. But our verdict today is that, despite some important accomplishments, the Bush years were a time of squandered opportunities, shocking abuse of power and cynical abandonment of both legal principles and historical values."
E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Bush did not respect the obligation of a leader in a free society to forge a durable consensus. He was better at announcing policies than explaining them. He dismissed legitimate opposition and plausible doubts about the courses he wished to pursue. It is partly because of these failures that Americans reacted by selecting a successor with such a profoundly different political personality."
Fareed Zakaria writes in his Washington Post opinion column that "keeping us safe" is a twisted way to judge a presidency.
Erik Kirschbaum writes for Reuters: "Editorial writers around the world have been taking their final printed whacks at George W. Bush, accusing the president of tarnishing America's standing with what many saw as arrogant and incompetent leadership."
Mark Knoller of CBS News tallies Bush's final numbers:
"U.S. Military Deaths In Iraq: 4,228.
"U.S. Military Deaths In Afghanistan: 634.
"Number Of Visits To Camp David: 149, totaling all or part of 487 days.
"Number Of Visits To His Texas Ranch: 77, totaling all or part of 490 days.
"Number Of Visits To His Parents' Home In Kennebunkport, Maine: 11, totaling all or part of 43 days."
And yes, that totals 1,020 days -- or just over 34 percent of his 2,992-day presidency. Ronald Reagan, the previously most-vacationing president ever, clocked a mere 866 days during his two terms.
Bob Garfield of NPR's On the Media has this response to Bush's thank you to the press corps at his final press conference: "Oh, really? Thank you? I believed him when he said 'you,' but I'm pretty sure 'thank' isn't the verb of one syllable he had in mind, because for the past eight years this White House has mainly given the Fourth Estate and the First Amendment the finger."
Jon Stewart notes the end of an era. "The last eight years have been -- gosh -- just -- well, great for this show."
David Letterman presents the final edition of "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches."
The Onion satirically reports: "A team of nine specially trained handlers have successfully lured outgoing vice president Dick Cheney into a reinforced steel traveling crate in order to transport him back to his permanent enclosure in Casper, WY, official sources reported Monday."
Air America offers an assessment of Bush by historians of the future.
On Saturday Night Live, Darrell Hammond as Cheney admits no regrets.Froomkin Watch
My column yesterday, simply titled Change, got a bit lost in all the fuss yesterday, but it's an important laying out of how I think the transition from Bush to Obama is an occasion for those of us who closely follow activities at the White House to rethink our relationship to the presidency and raise the level of discourse, which suffered badly over the past eight years. I urge you to read it.Cartoon Watch
Tony Auth and Pat Oliphant on the last chapter; Steve Sack on a new chapter. And Mike Luckovich, Tom Toles, Ann Telnaes, John Sherffius, Dan Wasserman, Walt Handelsman, John Sherffius, Rex Babin, Signe Wilkinson, Ted Rall and Jeff Danziger on Obama's inauguration.