Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The whole world in his hands

We’ve known this was coming for ten weeks now, and still, when it happened, the capacity for surprise and wonder and tears was very much intact. Today was one of those signal American moments, maybe The Signal American Moment: remarkable not because we recognized it, but precisely because we never have before. This is the terra incognita our nation was meant to be. This is, now, finally, the America that America has been waiting for.

When Barack Hussein Obama took the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States of America, the nation shifted in its foundation; its spiritual longitude, its emotional latitude were in a different place than the day before. Even as he took an oath that confirmed the vitality of some of our bedrock American certainties, his very presence as president called other sure things into question. The country thought it had the racial arithmetic, the calculus of individual achievement, all figured out. And now this.

And for African Americans, the descendants of the slaves who built the house he will now occupy for the next four years, today represents a psychic dividing line, a clear line of demarcation between one world view and another. The late Arthur C. Clarke might have envisioned something like this for a science-fiction novel: a day on which the future announces itself in breathtaking fashion; a world in which people long accustomed to being warmed by one sun woke up one morning to find, inexplicably, a second sun in the sky.

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The challenges facing Obama, and the country, are vast and serious: two foreign wars, one of them totally unnecessary; a disastrous economy; a domestic housing crisis that’s sapped the energy and confidence of millions of homeowners; business closing at a rampant pace; and a physical and emotional infrastructure in need of serious repair.

But with all of that, despite all of that … something in Obama, some happy collision of personal narrative, delivery of message and urgency of the hour, have made him the symbol of our aspirations in what may be the world’s most desperate and dangerous era. His innate sense of confidence. An infectious sense of possibility. His almost-otherworldly calm. A smile that could launch the careers of a thousand dental hygienists.

It’s these intangibles that, ironically enough, are a currency as valuable as any amount of money, any elaborate fiscal policy. That’ll come — the hard numbers will be on the table, preferably sooner rather than later. But for now, the unity he’s inspired in a broke, bone-weary, oratorically impoverished nation is enough.

The first stimulus package Barack Obama’s delivered to the American people is Barack Obama himself.

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For black Americans, the inauguration of Barack Obama happily endangers the bifurcated identity they've known in this country for generations — the “two-ness” of black identity brilliantly lamented by W.E.B. DuBois in “The Souls of Black Folk.” That two-ness for black America was a sense of isolation encountered in “a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on with amused contempt and pity.”

With a President Obama, those double strands of black American identity have merged, convincingly and totally. As president, Obama ratifies the realization of a dream whose depth in the black psyche ran deeper than Martin Luther King or even DuBois could know: the dream to be fully African American and American. Barack Obama didn’t bring African Americans into the mainstream. His rise to the presidency confirms, for a people historically cursed for their identity, that they are the mainstream.

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This emotional stimulus doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. The cable networks showed feeds from other networks around the world: BBC, al-Jazeera and others recording how the world greeted the news: parties in Paris and London; quietly cautious optimism in Tehran; street dances in Kenya; cheering in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

All this global big fun has nothing to do with policies and practice, and everything to do with perception. But underestimate perception at your peril. Not for nothing did Time magazine recently portray Obama as a physical surrogate for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The president’s ability to impart a sense of the possible is especially, necessarily directed at Americans, black Americans in particular. But that message is resonating around the world right now. The world is waiting, already more inspired and hopeful than they’ve had any reason to be for the last eight years.

Obama’s gifts — rhetorical, intellectual, political, emotional — may serve him as well as FDR’s did, in a time at least as dangerous as FDR’s was. Chief among those gifts is one that’s both the most ephemeral and the most important. It’s the ability to communicate a crucial rule of recovery — for a patient, an economy, a nation, a world: The first step to getting better is believing you will.
Image credits: The inauguration: Damon Winter, The New York Times. President Obama: Pete Souza, Obama-Biden Transition Office.

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