Obama Signals Need for a Sharp Break From the Past
Wednesday, January 21, 2009; Page A15
Just by raising his hand and taking the oath of office, President Obama made history yesterday. But from his inaugural address to the throngs who crowded the streets of Washington to the diversity of the faces in his White House reviewing stand, he signaled that his presidency probably will bring even more widespread changes to a nation confronted by problems of historic significance.
Rarely has a president come into office with the public in such a seemingly conflicted mood. Battered by the worst recession since the Great Depression, Americans are deeply pessimistic about the nation's future and their own well-being. The war in Iraq has taxed public patience. The war in Afghanistan and conflict in the Middle East challenge the shrewdest of leaders.
Obama's somber address -- and his exhortation to the country to pull together -- fit the times in which they were delivered. "Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real," the president said. "They are serious, and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met."
Yet at a time of doubt and despair, and on a day when the stock market plummeted again, Obama's inauguration showed another side to the nation's current mood -- hopefulness and a sense of confidence that has been invested in a young and relatively untested new president.
It was to both uncertainty and optimism that Obama directed his words from the Capitol's West Front, addressing a sea of faces along the Mall and street corners, churches and living rooms throughout the country. He said, "On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord."
History infused every aspect of the day, which saw the first African American president take office, as well as a generational shift -- away from the baby boomers who have led the nation for the past two decades, to a leader not part of the tumult of the 1960s -- and the return of Democratic control of Congress and the White House.
Most clearly, yesterday's activities confirmed that Obama's presidency will mark a sharp break from that of George W. Bush. The new president did not hesitate to highlight their differences. Obama spoke of a change of course in the Iraq war and of the "false choice between our safety and our ideals." Those last words were aimed at the previous administration's positions on civil liberties and harsh interrogation techniques. Most striking, given Bush's unpopularity abroad, was Obama's declaration to a world watching intently and eagerly that "we are ready to lead again."
Still, perhaps mindful that during his campaign he faced doubts about his readiness to lead in a time of war, Obama was careful to balance his pledge to use diplomacy and cooperation in dealing with the rest of the world with steely words of resolve. To those out to harm the country, he said: "Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."
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."
The relationship between government and the economy changed before Obama came to office, because of the economic crisis. Obama suggested that he will probably accelerate those changes. He said the issue is not whether free markets are a force for good or ill, but whether they work to the benefit of all Americans without a more watchful eye from government. In asking the question, he provided the answer that will guide his policymakers.
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."
Obama's agenda includes a stimulus package that will cost about $800 billion, on top of the $700 billion that he helped fight for to unlock the credit crisis and restore the health of the country's imperiled banking system. To treat the economy, he is likely to run up record deficits.
Obama also intends to re-regulate the financial industry. He hopes to fundamentally redraw the nation's energy policy, with an aim of reducing dependence on foreign oil. That goal has eluded every president since Richard M. Nixon. Beyond that, he favors far-reaching changes in the health-care system, expanding coverage and reducing costs. That, too, is an objective that has proved beyond the capabilities of previous presidents and Congresses.
Obama campaigned on a promise to turn the page on the politics of the past, from the gridlocked debates that have consumed Washington to the ideological polarization that has so soured the public. "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," he said.
But with customary self-confidence, Obama tried to put himself on the high ground of a different era. "What the cynics fail to understand," he said, "is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply."
As his presidency begins, Obama has two assets upon which to draw. People believe he won a mandate in November and are willing to trust him to set the tone and the agenda. At the same time, he governs with a reservoir of patience. People do not expect miracles or quick solutions to problems that they recognize are enormously complicated.
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. With his words and demeanor yesterday, he showed that he hopes to seize this moment of history, not shrink from it. He will need all the skill he showed throughout his campaign to succeed, and some of the luck, too.