My girlfriend insisted that we attend at least one big inaugural function in Washington, D.C. so we could witness history. Since I planned on being at work the day of the inauguration, that left the "We Are One" concert on the National Mall honoring President-elect Barack Obama and headlined by Bruce Springsteen. Thus, on early Sunday afternoon I was off to stand around in the cold, listen to an over-the-hill singer who hasn't had a good album in two decades, surrounded by a big crowd of liberals. Seemed like the place to be.
On the way to the concert, I was struck by the number of street vendors selling Obama paraphernalia. Thinking I was being clever, I approached one who was selling t-shirts and asked, "Is that in the spirit of the day? I mean shouldn't we be sharing, and about change, and giving them away?"
"Yeah," he replied, "you wanna free shirt?"
Street vendor: 1, me: 0.
I tried to boost my pride as I walked away with my girlfriend by joking, "That's why I like to see at a big lefty gathering, capitalism!"
My girlfriend: "Oh, shut up."
Fortunately, my spirits recovered not long after we reached the concert. The crowd was massive, stretching all the way from the Lincoln Memorial, where the concert was staged, back to the Washington Monument. Thanks to JumboTrons just across the road from the World War II Memorial, the crowd not near the Lincoln Memorial could watch the festivities.
The organizers deserve credit. The concert was both joyous and serious, celebrating Obama's victory and acknowledging the economic problems our nation faces. Best of all, the Obama people seem to have exerted control over the artists. No silly political outbursts from the musicians and the actors giving speeches stuck to their scripts. Perhaps the Obama people could direct the next Academy and Grammy Awards?
The one low point of the concert actually came during Springsteen's appearance. Although huge applause greeted his entrance and departure, a few "boos" were interspersed. One of those displeased gents walked by me, wearing a Service Employees International Union knitted cap. Guess the Boss's deal with Wal-Mart wasn't the hope and change he was looking for.
That, though, was about the only bit of discontent. There was ample evidence of Obama's ability to inspire.
Out in the crowd, a mother and daughter from Orlando held up a sign that read, "You May Say I'm a Dreamer, But I'm Not The Only One." The mother, Randa Black, said, "I like when Obama speaks about change, and I hear people saying there's hope and change, well, he's changed me. So I already know that he is changing the world. He's changing the way the world views us, and I think that's very powerful."
Her daughter, McKenna, said, "This is the highest rated voting for my age group [young voters] ever. No one was ever interested or even had pride in our country, almost upset that they were American and not from somewhere else. I think Obama gives us pride and hope for change. It's an honor to be an American knowing we have a great leader for once."
Similarly high spirits were found among Gloria Tacklyn, Deborah Richardson, Kim Knights and Debora Bull, who had traveled from Bermuda to attend.
"We came to see the first African-American president inaugurated," said Deborah Richardson. "And we can't even vote here."
"He's for everyone," Gloria enthused. "Black, latino, white -- everyone."
Professor Javier Gálvez, a professor of pre-Colombian music, dance and culture at Claremont College in California, was dressed in rather impressive Aztec regalia that included feathers at least five feet long. He directs an Aztec dance group called Danzantes del Sol. He was also a local organizer for the Obama campaign and was given tickets for the inauguration.
"I support Obama because he is an indication of a new path, a change in the world, a change in this nation, and an opportunity for everybody," said Gálvez. "I believe he will bring the changes necessary to see that we have a better nation and a better world."
Another person from California, Kris Stone, said, "Obama's the hope for the future. This is the signal of the long national nightmare being over with the Bush Administration and what they've done to this country. I believe they've gone a long way to destroy it. And you just heard President Obama, all this hope he'll bring us, and I think he'll bring us together and start to solve these problems."
During his brief speech, Obama used some form of "hope" six times. In one passage he said:
And yet, as I stand here today, what gives me the greatest hope of all is not the stone and marble that surrounds us today, but what fills the spaces in between. It is you -- Americans of every race and region and station who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there.
It is the same thing that gave me hope from the day we began this campaign for the presidency nearly two years ago; a belief that if we could just recognize ourselves in one another and bring everyone together -- Democrats, Republicans, independents; Latino, Asian and Native American; black and white, gay and straight, disabled and not -- then not only would we restore hope and opportunity in places that yearned for both, but maybe, just maybe, we might perfect our union in the process.
This is what I believed, but you made this belief real. You proved once more that people who love this country can change it. And as I prepare to assume the presidency, yours are the voices I will take with me every day when I walk into that Oval Office -- the voices of men and women who have different stories but hold common hopes; who ask only for what was promised us as Americans -- that we might make of our lives what we will and see our children climb higher than we did.
Obama's ability to inspire is his greatest asset. It may also prove to be his greatest liability. With big hope comes big expectations. If Obama cannot fulfill most of those expectations -- make a better nation and world, bring us all together, be a great leader -- it will surely create big disappointment.
Obama seems to sense this, and part of his speech tried to temper the enormous sense of hope that he has inspired:
I won't pretend that meeting any one of these challenges will be easy. It will take more than a month or a year, and it will likely take many. Along the way there will be setbacks and false starts and days that test our fundamental resolve as a nation.
That sentiment may have sunk in with some in the crowd.
Cliff Valenti, a software developer in D.C., told me, "What appeals to me [about Obama] is the change aspect. That doesn't mean that I'm not proceeding warily. I don't like that he reversed on FISA during the election…. I'm hoping just for government that's more for the people although I don't know if that's what I'll get."
Even McKenna Black, when asked what she thought the country would look like four years from now, replied, "Honestly, it's gonna be difficult. I understand that it's not going to be, 'All of sudden Obama's here and everything is gonna be perfect.'"
Nevertheless, it was clear that Obama's inspiration moved her more than his sobriety: "I think there is going to be a 'Before Obama' and an 'After Obama.' It's gonna make a big difference."
Obama can keep that sense of optimism going for quite a while. Yet he has built up such big expectations that, in the long run, he seems to have nowhere else to go in people's eyes but down. If, as I fear, his economic stimulus package actually worsens the economy, the great edifice of hope Obama has constructed will come crashing down. And that may be something that even the most inspirational rhetoric cannot overcome.
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