Since incoming US president Barack Obama first announced his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, almost two years ago, we have witnessed a series of “historic moments” — each more portentous than the last. Yesterday, his inauguration as the 44th president of the US marked the curtain call on a symbolic storyline in varying degrees dramatic, implausible and impressive.
Since that heady election night, most of the posters and badges supporting him have remained on display — as though to take them down would prematurely surrender his victory moment to posterity. Most bore his likeness in socialist realist style while bearing single word commands like Hope, Believe and Change. After lunchtime tomorrow that word should say Power. From the moment he lifts his hand and takes the oath, the popular transition from dream to reality and aspiration to destination, will be complete. Obama’s supporters will have to wake up to the fact that he has arrived. From that point on, the issue is no longer what he is and means, but what he does.
And there will be a lot to do. The constitutional interregnum between one West Wing occupant and another is not the only transition that has been taking place since early November. The economy has shifted from recession to slump and from laissez-faire to state intervention, while Gaza has gone from an open prison to a mass graveyard. At convenient moments Obama has claimed that there can only be one president at a time. But the truth is that for much of the last two years there has been none. Being a lame duck is one part of outgoing US President George W. Bush’s tenure that he has taken seriously, even as the country has been crying out for leadership.
So expectations are high. Obama hasn’t even started the job yet and his approval ratings are 83 percent. According to a recent Gallup poll, more than half believe he will reduce healthcare costs, double the production of alternative energy, cut taxes, withdraw troops from Iraq, close Guantanamo and make it easier for unions to organize. About two-thirds think he will ensure that all children have healthcare, increase the number troops in Afghanistan, lift government restrictions on stem cell research, and boost spending to build the country’s infrastructure. Seventy percent think they will be better off by the time he has finished his first term. That’s a lot of weight to put on those skinny shoulders.
By the time you read this, some will have already set off in buses from all around the country to attend the inauguration (Washington has issued 5,000 charter bus permits), with many more set to accompany them on charter and commercial flights. The federal government has declared the event a national emergency. Those who stay at home can see it in 27 cinemas nationwide or attend one of the 3,000 events from Alaska to Alabama.
The only outpouring of British festivity that I can compare it to in my lifetime was the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. However, Americans are celebrating their democratic choice as opposed to their subject servitude.
Not for the first time, ridiculous claims will be made for this particular historical moment. Some will say this could not happen anywhere else, without acknowledging that putting one in three black men born at the turn of this century in jail could not happen anywhere else either. A black man in the White House seems so unlikely precisely because a black man in prison, dead or impoverished is so much more likely.