It will be a moment of history that the world has long awaited. Today, Barack Obama will complete the journey he began almost two years ago and become the US’ first black president.
After an astonishing campaign that raged across every state in the US, Obama has finally come to Washington to claim the ultimate prize of his victory: the White House.
It will be a moment of supreme change. The era of outgoing US President George W. Bush, with all its controversies and disasters, will come to an end. The age of Obama, with all its untested promise, will begin. The US will never be the same again.
For some, that change is already beginning. In Washington, home to the most powerful government in the world and to some of the US’ most impoverished people, the Obama age is already dawning, in ways small and large.
Nothing spells out the end of the old era more clearly than the scale and atmosphere of the inauguration itself. It is the biggest in history.
“The presidential inauguration is the transcendent ritual of American democracy,” Donald Kennon of the US Capitol Historical Society said.
Never will that ritual have been more emphatic. Millions of people will crowd the streets and attend scores of parties and balls hosted by everyone from lobbyists to the hip-hop industry. A fleet of 10,000 buses will ferry visitors from every corner of the nation. There will be a parade, a free concert in the Mall and four days of solid celebration.
They will all be there to watch a black man take the oath as the country’s 44th president, surrounded by buildings — such as the Capitol itself — that were built with African slave labor. Though a small army of almost 20,000 police and soldiers will be deployed, not a single protest is planned.
In Washington, the sense of excitement and expectation has been growing week by week amid occasional hints of just how big this will be.
Sonya Ali knew someone important was coming to her restaurant when the secret service turned up on Jan. 10. The black-suited men would only say she should expect a “special visitor.”
“I asked them, ‘Is it the special visitor?’” she laughed as she sat a table at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a famous diner on U Street in the heart of Washington’s black district.
A few minutes later, Obama walked in and ordered a half-smoke sausage and cheese fries.
“It was amazing to see him here,” Ali said.
It was also a harbinger of the transformations that Obama’s incoming administration is bringing to the city. Beginning today, Obama is reshaping Washington from top to bottom, in ways both trivial and profound.
The visit to Ben’s — where Martin Luther King also used to eat — was a sign that, for the first time, the man living in the White House would embrace Washington’s often overlooked black community. It also showed that he would be a part of everyday life in this racially divided city in a way that Bush never has been.
“In one week, he went to more restaurants here than Bush did in all of last year,” Ali said.
But the changes go beyond trying to make Washington more inclusive and acknowledging the historic nature of his election. They extend to a chillier atmosphere for the lobbying firms that have boomed in Washington in recent years. They extend to reaching out to Republicans and trying to end partisan divides. The mega-celebrities who have flocked around Obama are also giving his White House a glamorous air unrivalled by any previous president. Certainly none has entered the capital with such a giddy reputation, combining youth, stardom and widespread admiration.
In seeking to capitalize on this, Obama has consciously drawn parallels between himself and the US’ 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, an earlier Illinois senator who rose from obscurity to rule a divided country. But many observers think Obama has picked the wrong president. Instead, they see a black version of former president John F. Kennedy. They think Obama’s first term will see a new Camelot arising on the banks of the Potomac.
“It is a return to the feeling of that JFK era. The best and the brightest of the whole country are coming to Washington,” said Robert Watson, a professor of American Studies at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida.
Just across the road from the White House, Kevin Kellenberger, 41, sat in a coffee shop and ate a lunchtime sandwich. Government employees thronged the pavements amid office blocks that house the federal government and the many organizations and lobbying firms that co-exist with it. Kellenberger, a director with the US Red Cross, was as excited as Ali about Obama’s arrival. But he was more skeptical about his chances of fundamentally altering Washington.
“I am doubtful of what he can really do and how much he can change the way things work here. It will just carry on as usual,” Kellenberger said.
Washington is not just a city. It is also a system and Obama is not the first president to win the White House vowing to do things differently. But that is the promise that Obama has made, and there are signs that things are shifting.
Look at his inauguration. Lobbyists have been barred from contributing funds to the official events and, while they will populate many subsidiary parties, their presence has been marginalized. The renowned K Street — the Washington avenue that is home to many lobbying firms — is changing. Under Bush, the big money to be made was in having Republican clients. No longer. One major firm, BGR Holding, once the biggest Republican-only group, has consciously turned bipartisan. Indeed the firm is hosting its own Blue Ball, signaling its intent to court the new Blue State — Democratic — rulers of America.
This certainly marks the end of the “K Street Project,” hatched by Republican leaders to make the lobbying industry just another branch of the conservative movement. That goal seems laughable in Obama’s America.
In what is perhaps a sign of the times, Washington’s famed steak houses are also falling out of fashion. Democrats, it seems, prefer less red meat, and soul food is making a comeback.
Other shifts are also upsetting the city’s usual powerbrokers. Unlike the secretive Bush transition, shaped largely by then vice president Dick Cheney, the Obama team has delivered on its promise to be a more open government. That is backed up by its use of an online army of supporters created during the campaign. Under Obama, Washington’s corridors of power will now open up to the online masses who are being consulted as a new campaigning tool. Lobbyists now do not just come in the shape of people in power suits; they come in the form of thousands of e-mails or millions of names on an online petition.
Obama is also changing the Washington system by seeking to bridge political divides, rejecting the hyper-partisan attacks of Bush.
“He is genuine about it. I have been really struck by the effort to restore a sense of bipartisanship,” said Larry Haas, a political commentator and former aide during the tenure of US president Bill Clinton.
Obama has reversed the Bush policy of putting loyalists and political ideologues in sensitive positions, such as at the departments of justic, state and the Pentagon. Instead, the emphasis is on a broad range of opinion, technical skills and experience. Witness the choice of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, bringing his one-time rival into the heart of the Cabinet. Or look at his choice of the two men who will give invocations during his inauguration celebrations. One is the conservative evangelical Rick Warren, which outraged gay activists. The other is Bishop Gene Robinson, who is openly gay and loathed by conservatives.
That willingness to shock both sides of Washington’s establishment is perhaps the biggest way Obama is changing the city’s political culture. He represents a generational change that could finally end the culture wars, putting a stop to the embittered politics that emerged from the 1960s. Obama, unlike Bush and Clinton, is not a baby boomer. Nor are many of his Cabinet nominees. His candidates for treasury secretary Tim Geithner is 47, education secretary Arne Duncan is 44, ambassador to the UN Susan Rice is 44 and the man selected to be surgeon general, Sanjay Gupta, is 39. For the “Obama generation,” Vietnam was a history lesson, not a cause.
But while the politics that sprang from the 1960s may be over, the comparisons to JFK are unlikely to go away. For Obama is bringing celebrity, glamour and popular appeal back to the White House.
It can be seen in the face of 52-year-old Santos Salazar. A block away from where Kellenberger was eating, Guatemala-born Salazar spends his long working days in the darkness of an underground car park. He enthused over the new president.
“It will be good. I have been in this country for 30 years and I have never seen it so bad. But Obama will fix things. The people are behind him. I am behind him,” he said.
Salazar is right. Obama is inheriting two unpopular foreign wars and an economic disaster, but he is also riding into town on an unprecedented wave of good will. Americans of all stripes, stung by the economic downturn, are willing him to succeed. Much of that is to do with the positive image he is bringing to Washington after the Bush years. Bush’s capital was a fortress: mentally and physically. As new security barriers sprang up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Bush withdrew. He preferred Crawford, Texas, spending more than 400 days of his tenure at his ranch. He shied away from public appearances as he became a symbol of division.
Obama could not be more different. He is still giving huge rallies. He is the politician as rock star; a campaign meme that his Republican rival for the presidency, John McCain, was criticized for using, but it was prophetic. Obama has now graced Time’s cover 15 times. He has twice sat for famed celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz. It was Obama’s half-naked image on a Hawaii beach — snapped by a paparazzo — that set the nation’s hearts fluttering with his pecs and shades. It is Obama whose inauguration will be attended by more than 2 million people and include a free concert with Bruce Springsteen, Bono and Shakira. It is the new first lady, Michelle Obama — echoing Jackie Onassis — whose fashion tastes are setting trends in ways of which homely Laura Bush could never have dreamed. The Washington Post’s Style section last week ran a lengthy analysis of her fashion choices on its front page and gushed over her dresses under the headline “The Wind of Change.”
Nor are these things entirely trivial, a repetition of the surface glamour for which Kennedy’s Camelot was criticised. They could achieve the near-impossible and inspire people to join government, as JFK did. “Obama could make government a place that is cool to work in. That would have a huge impact on America and herald a new age of public service,” Haas said.
It could also provide a way to unite a city whose history of racial problems could easily be symbolic of the country as a whole. It is often forgotten that Washington has a history of segregation. In the 1950s, Obama would not have been served in a downtown Washington diner. He could not have tried on clothes in a department store or gone to the capital’s whites-only National Theater. Even as late as 1961, the year Obama was born, the city’s Glen Echo amusement park still barred black people.
Such a history echoes in today’s Washington which remains divided, with its poor, black residents playing host to the well-off whites who dominate federal institutions. Its twin populations rarely mix, living in sharply divided neighborhoods, socializing in different bars and worshipping at different churches.
Obama’s vow to change that, especially by joining a multiracial church, is already having an effect among both black and white Washingtonians.
“He will break down barriers in this city,” Kellenberger said.
That sentiment was echoed by Ali back on U Street, once known as the Black Broadway.
“It’s impacting people in this city. There is a shift in attitudes,” she said, looking round at an ethnically mixed crowd in Ben’s.
Ali even showed a flash of anger at suggestions that Obama’s race was the defining part of his presidency. He was more than that, she insisted. “He transcends color and race and all of that stuff. He is a man for all the people, no matter what gender or ethnicity,” she said.
Those were hopeful words, and they came in a city famed for its divisions. As Obama prepares to take over the White House, he will have to hope that he will be able to encourage the rest of the US to follow its capital city’s lead.
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