Time and again, incoming presidents point Americans toward unity. Jefferson did so in the great debate over strong central government. Lincoln did when slavery cleaved the country. Now, after decades of cultural and political polarization and in the face of great challenges, it's Barack Obama's turn at choirmaster for the nation's disparate voices.
Americans excel at pulling together when needed. Look no further than last week's Hudson River emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549, which combined the expertise of the pilots, the quick response of harbor boats, and the calm aid of crew and passengers.
But such common effort reaches far beyond a crisis, back over the centuries to the ideals that set the American experiment apart.
The diverse faces of the millions who came to witness the swearing in of the country's first African-American president testify to what ultimately unifies. It's not ethnicity or religious creed, which define so many nations, but the founding ideals of the United States – liberty, justice, and opportunity for all.
When put into practice, they attract and inspire the world over. They are the reason many in other countries tuned in to President Obama's inauguration and sent e-mails like this one: "Today, I feel like an American, too."
These values have had the power to throw off a monarchy, abolish slavery, and make way for women's suffrage. They have been worth suffering and dying for. They have plied the decades, refining and improving laws and behaviors until almost unawares, they produced a president whose very identity embodies unity as none before him has, and whose personal story is a nonfiction American dream.
As a candidate, Mr. Obama campaigned on oneness. In the weeks since the election, he has put that concept into practice: in his Cabinet, in reaching out to Republicans (including his opponent, John McCain), and in meeting with conservative columnists. He appears to be not just asking for input, but listening. As Jefferson pointed out, woe to that democracy that does not protect minority interests.
Obama repeatedly states that his will be an administration influenced by what works, by empirical evidence – not by party ideology. He's set a tone that honors that of his political hero, Lincoln: "With malice toward none, with charity for all." Applied consistently, it may earn him charity in return when he disappoints either side – as he will.
So far, Obama's having a unifying effect. Forty-seven percent of voters rejected him on Nov. 4, yet a New York Times/CBS News poll shows 79 percent of Americans are optimistic about the next four years under the new president – a level of support greater than that of the past five incoming chiefs.
It's a tall order, bringing a country together. But Obama is reaching beyond political bridge-building – as hard as that is – to a spiritual union grounded in individuals caring for each other, what he calls "a new era of responsibility."
Franklin D. Roosevelt hinted at the same in his first inaugural: "These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men."
As America's 44th president recognizes, the job ahead belongs to all of us.