At noon on Tuesday, history will be made on the steps of the US Capitol. Barack Hussein Obama will take the oath of office, placing his left hand on the Bible that Abraham Lincoln used when he took the same oath in 1861.
Back then, the nation was descending into civil war over slavery. Today, the new president faces economic challenges unmatched in generations, two wars abroad, and the continuing threat of terrorism at home. The difficult business of governing at a time of crisis will begin nearly from the moment President-elect Obama utters the words “so help me God.” His inauguration speech, delivered right after the oath, will reportedly focus on two themes: responsibility and restoring public confidence.
But the special significance of Obama’s inauguration, as America’s first black president, will also be a moment for reflection and celebration. On a long weekend already commemorating the 80th birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Americans of all colors have converged on the nation’s capital in unprecedented numbers to bear witness to this latest step in the struggle toward racial equality.
Though not descended from slaves, President-elect Obama carries with him the special hopes and pride of those who are. Two and a half months after Mr. Obama’s decisive electoral victory, many African-Americans are still processing a moment they thought they’d never see.
Ronald Walters, a political scientist who worked on civil rights leader Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns, says that when Mr. Jackson’s 1988 campaign folded, he concluded that the election of an African American would not happen in his lifetime.
“And then it happens,” says Mr. Walters, director of the African American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland. But, he adds, “this is not about Barack Obama, in the final analysis. It’s about the American people and where we are in history at this given moment.”
Obama, alone among the candidates, recognized the profound desire for change early in the campaign. His opposition to the Iraq war from the start gave him that initial boost, and when the economy began to crater, that sealed it.
To elect a black man of exotic heritage and name, “things had to get this bad,” says Walters. “[Voters] privileged their own pain and anxiety over voting for an African-American. Obviously, they had to conclude that he was much better than [Republican nominee] John McCain and voted in that respect. After three debates, sizing him up, seeing his charisma, understanding his desire for change, they decided he was better.”
Still, the symbolism surrounding Obama’s rise to power is apparent at every turn. At the Democratic convention in August, Obama delivered his acceptance speech on the 45th anniversary of Dr. King’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. On Sunday, Obama spoke at the inaugural opening ceremonies from the Lincoln Memorial, the venue of King’s speech and also of famed black contralto Marian Anderson’s performance in 1939. She had been denied permission to sing at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
The use of the Lincoln Bible for the swearing-in – in the shadow of a Capitol building constructed in part by slave labor – adds to the mystique of Tuesday’s events. The media hype surrounding this weekend, fueled in part by 24/7 cable TV, is leading some commentators to dub this a coronation rather than an inauguration.
In his remarks Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial, Obama himself sought to place this moment in the sweep of history, but more the in context of the challenges before the nation.
“In the course of our history, only a handful of generations have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now,” he said. “Our nation is at war. Our economy is in crisis. Millions of Americans are losing their jobs and their homes. But despite all of this – despite the enormity of the task that lies ahead – I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure, that the dream of our founders will live on in our time.”
After winning the election with 53 percent of the vote, Obama enters the Oval Office with a high level of public confidence in his ability to deal with the nation’s problems. The latest Pew Research Center poll shows 79 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of Obama, including 59 percent of Republicans. The Pew research also shows most Americans see Obama as a problem-solver, and a “uniter.”
For many Republicans, the inauguration of Obama is a bittersweet time. It was President Lincoln, a Republican, who freed the slaves. During the civil rights era, it was Democrats who seized the mantle of reform, earning the loyalty of most black voters.
Raynard Jackson, a black Republican political consultant, says he voted for Obama, but remains a Republican. He wants to help the party from the inside.
Peter Wehner, a former top policy adviser to President Bush, agrees that Republicans are proud of this historic moment “and what it says about America.”
“To ... have a black man inaugurated and about to take office in a house built by slaves – and in a nation which still had segregation during the lives of many people who will witness the inauguration – is a remarkable, poignant, and hopeful moment in the life of this country,” Mr. Wehner says. “I think most people, of every party, feel that.”
Wehner also is “mildly encouraged” by Obama’s actions during the transition. But he remains wary of how Obama will govern, given his record as a state senator and a US senator. “It helps, I think, that Obama is a likable and impressive man in many respects, one who has acted in ways that many Republicans find somewhat reassuring, at least compared to what they thought they might get,” he says.
Not everyone moved to celebrate the inauguration of Obama has come to Washington, though it may feel that way. Celebrations are taking place around the country, and indeed, the world.
In the small logging town of Springhill, La., Linda Clayton decided this moment could not go unmarked. Since she could not travel to Washington, she organized a gala celebration right there in Springhill last Friday night, with her musical group, Change, performing.
Hopes were high that she could attract a large, diverse crowd – the town is mostly white, and Ms. Clayton is black – but in the end, she had only 50 or 60 people, all black, she says.
Clayton is concerned that some black preachers discouraged people from attending because there would be champagne and dancing. But she has no regret that she had the party. The inauguration “had great significance for me, because both my parents lived to see it and I know what they’ve lived through,” she says.