Evoking iconic images from America's past and proclaiming a new era of renewal and conciliation, Barack Obama took office today as the 44th president of the United States.
As the first African-American to serve in the nation's highest office, Obama placed his inauguration in the context of the nation's long struggle to live up to its ideals of justice, opportunity, and community. Standing on the steps of the Capitol, Obama noted that "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."
Bundled against the cold of a wintry afternoon at the West Front of the Capitol, overlooking a vast throng of well-wishers on the Washington Mall, and facing the Lincoln Memorial in the distance, Obama struck a tone that was both sober and uplifting: "Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious, and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America—they will be met. On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord."
Obama, one of the nation's youngest chief executives at 47, must deal with some of the most daunting challenges that any new president has faced in many years. The economy is in crisis; millions of Americans are out of work or fear they will be; many are losing their homes; there are wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; a global threat still exists from Islamic jihadists; and the nation is deeply worried about its future.
Obama and his aides say his immediate goals are to usher in a "culture of responsibility" from both leaders and everyday citizens and to reassure Americans that life will improve. In his address, Obama declared, "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task."
Obama hit a number of historical notes about the role of past generations in building America and said, "This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions—that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."
His most important legislative goal is to win congressional passage of a massive economic recovery package that could cost more than $1 trillion when all the bargaining is done. To that end, Obama advisers say he will convene his top economic advisers to plan strategy tomorrow, his first full day as president. He is expected to deliver another speech outlining his economic proposals in more detail at a joint session of Congress the week of February 23.
"The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act—not only to create new jobs but to lay a new foundation for growth," Obama said. "We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise healthcare's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do."
Still, Obama alluded to the intense partisanship that has so frequently hindered grand ambitions of incoming presidents: "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. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small but whether it works—whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account—to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day—because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government."
On other fronts, Obama will also meet tomorrow with military leaders to begin arranging for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months, as he promised during his campaign, his aides say. He is considering the appointment of a special Mideast envoy to help relieve the crisis in Gaza.
"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," he said. "To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
Obama is also thinking about a variety of executive orders or unilateral actions to close the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; to ban the use of torture on terrorism suspects; to raise fuel efficiency in automobiles; and to reverse a Bush administration policy and allow U.S. funds to be used for international family planning groups that promote abortion or provide information about abortion services.
In addition to an economic recovery package, some want Obama to push for a grand compromise that would include legislation expanding health insurance, promoting energy independence, and tackling entitlement reform. But others say official Washington—with all its divisions and congressional rules that encourage delay and obstruction—can't handle such a massive chore.
Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, says, "It's very difficult to do a big-bang strategy. The test begins with economic stimulus and how Obama will govern, which may open the doors to future compromises and future coalitions." Much depends on whether Obama can bring Republicans and conservative Democrats on board, or whether he can muster support only from fellow centrist and liberal Democrats. While this limited approach could produce enough votes to win passage of the economic recovery bill, it would spell trouble for other contentious issues on Obama's agenda, such as overhauling Social Security and Medicare.
Obama appears to be looking for support, for example, from 75 to 80 senators on the economic bill. This will be difficult to attain, since some liberals want more federal spending than conservatives do and conservatives favor larger tax cuts than do the liberals.
But historian Robert Dallek says Obama benefits from strong popularity and the nation's desire for unity and effective leadership amid today's economic distress, generating a wave of momentum behind his proposals. And Obama's conciliatory approach is also winning him points. "He's not saying, 'My way or the highway,' as his predecessor often demanded," says a Republican strategist.
Dallek adds that Republicans will be ready to pounce. "They're waiting for him to stumble, but, for the moment, they can't take him down," Dallek says.
In political terms, a defeat for Obama on the economic package, his first real test of power, would be harmful to his can-do reputation. "To be seen as an effective president, you have to win the battles on Capitol Hill," says a former lobbyist for the White House.
Actually, Obama already won such a battle before he became president. On January 15, the Senate voted 52 to 42 to release the second half of the government's financial bailout package after Obama made a personal appeal for the funds. He said the $350 billion was needed immediately to lift the battered economy, and senators overcame their objections and gave the new president what he wanted.