WASHINGTON, D.C. -- "This is the first time that people have been this excited about inauguration," a precocious boy explained to me as I rode the Metro to the Capitol Tuesday morning. "This is the first time people have been this excited about the presidency."
My first instinct was to play the role of the wise elder and explain that there were plenty of times throughout history that people were just as exited about a new president. But instead, I just smiled and nodded, because walking around Washington, D.C. on the day of Barack Obama's inauguration, it was hard to disagree too fervently with the boy's analysis.
From the time I left my apartment in downtown Washington, I was immediately swallowed by the hordes, some who were local and others who were bused in from places like Akron, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan. Attorney Surat Singh, who went to Harvard Law School with Obama, told me that he made the long trek from New Delhi, India, to see his classmate take the oath of office.
Vendors turned the city into a giant flea market, with merchandise bearing Obama's image more ubiquitous than Mickey Mouse souvenirs at Disney World -- right down to a novelty item featuring Obama on a $9 bill.
The standard chants of "O-BAM-A" and "Yes We Can!" echoed throughout the city, along with some improvisational numbers. At one point, I witnessed a woman singing her own rendition of "Happy Obama Day."
Looking down from a platform of the Capitol onto an ocean of people stretching past the Washington Monument, it was hard not to be impressed. Lawmakers marveled at what they saw below them and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), among others, snapped a photo of the spectacle from his cell phone camera. Some estimates put the crowd at over 2 million people, or enough to fill about 40 Yankee Stadiums.
But as soon as the newly sworn-in President Obama approached the lectern to deliver his inaugural speech after he and Chief Justice John Roberts flubbed the oath of office, it became clear how much was riding on our new president, and how he has set up expectations that will be impossible to fulfill. The speech itself was evidence of that.
Despite nearly two months of fine-tuning, the man whose gift for oratory helped launch him into the White House gave a rather flat and unfocused talk without any memorable lines. It didn't even generate much applause among the Obama die-hards who had waited outside in the bitter cold to be a part of history.
The 19-minute address was filled with trite metaphors from "the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms" to "let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come." At times, its somber tone recalled Jimmy Carter's "Crisis of Confidence" talk rather than the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan or Franklin D. Roosevelt.
After weeks of hyping the speech -- and reporting how Obama was studying past great addresses such as Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural -- the spin from the media following the subdued performance was that Obama actually intended to give a weaker than usual speech to reflect the seriousness of the times. Are we to believe that if Obama knocked it out of the ballpark, the media would say it was too showy and inappropriate for the occasion?
MORE IMPORTANTLY, the content of the speech highlighted one of the central difficulties facing his administration. His rhetoric succeeds because it makes everybody feel that he sympathizes with them, but sometimes ideas are inherently contradictory and that will become more obvious now that he has to make decisions.
Obama, in a nod to conservatism, invoked the Founders and touted the importance of tried and true values that "have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history." He also called for "a new era of responsibility."
But Obama believes that the Constitution is a living and breathing document, while conservatives believe that it should be interpreted on the basis of its original intent. Conservatives believe that people who purchased houses that they couldn't afford should be responsible for their decisions rather than taxpayers, while Obama believes we have a collective responsibility to make sure people – even irresponsible people -- don't lose their homes.
"What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply," Obama instructed us. "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works…"
As far as this goes, Obama isn't breaking new ground. In his own first inaugural address, Reagan said, "Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work…"
The debate isn't over whether or not government should work -- good luck finding one politician who touts ineffective government. The debate is over whether a smaller or larger government works better, and about the criteria for measuring what constitutes a working government.
For Reagan in 1981, government needed to "work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it." While for Obama in 2009, government is working if "it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, [and] a retirement that is dignified."
Obama also insisted that the question isn't "whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control…"
But that statement is meaningless, because a "watchful eye" can mean anything from an NFL referee to Big Brother.
IN FOREIGN AND NATIONAL security policy, Obama's statements are no less problematic. He wants to renew America's leadership role in the world and reach out the hand of friendship to all willing countries. But in this world of jealous nations, sometimes befriending one nation alienates another.
Also, in what is being touted as a clear break with the Bush administration, Obama "reject[ed] as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." But even before taking the oath of office, Obama already stretched his timeline for closing Guantanamo Bay to within his first term, and has recognized it’s a much more complicated process than he let on during the campaign.
Ever since he launched his candidacy nearly two years ago, Obama has been able to use well-crafted rhetoric to paper over contradictory signals, and his lack of executive experience created questions about how he would govern. Would he rule from the center or left? Is he a radical or a political pragmatist? Will he be a transformational liberal leader or a merely another Democratic president?
This morning, as President Obama awakes from a night of revelry with the entire nation rooting for him, the guessing game will be over, and the American people will begin to judge him on the decisions he makes, and the results.
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