By Julie Marsh
The inauguration of the 44th president of the United States is one week away. It's a momentous occasion that's all the more groundbreaking because Barack Obama, our President-Elect, is African-American.
For those who lived during times of segregation and who witnessed the civil rights movement firsthand, it's a milestone in our country that they hardly dared dream about. Clarence B. Jones, former speechwriter and advisor to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., writes:
"...an African-American President Barack Obama, during the next 8 years, may do more to foster racial, social, political and justice and economic opportunity in America than has been achieved by any other event or person, including Dr. King, in the previous 408 years. I never thought as Martin's former close advisor and speechwriter that I would live long enough to ever publicly write or say these words."
The historical impact of Barack Obama's presidency in and of itself -- even apart from any accomplishments of his administration -- is a powerful one. It doesn't mean that racism and xenophobia have been conquered. It doesn't mean that the United States will regain its standing in the world. It doesn't mean that we will wake up on Wednesday, January 21, to find Congress linking arms and singing kum-ba-yah as they legislate away all of our problems.
But it absolutely does demonstrate our progress as a nation of individuals with the freedom to choose our leader -- and overwhelmingly, we chose Barack Obama.
Even Vice-President Dick Cheney is genuinely enthusiastic about Barack Obama's inauguration:
"I have the same feeling that I think many Americans have, that it's really remarkable that -- what we're going to do here in a few days is swear in the first African American president of the United States. When I came to town in 1968, we'd had the Martin Luther King assassination, Bobby Kennedy assassination, riots in the cities, major, major disturbances, a lot of it racially motivated around the country.
"And in fact, things have changed so dramatically that we're now about to swear in Barack Obama as president of the United States. That's really a remarkable story and I think a record of tremendous success and progress for the United States."
Truly, no matter which lever you pulled on Election Day, I think it's nearly impossible not to be awed by the significance of the election of a black man to the highest office in the country.
Unfortunately, as Howard Fineman points out in this week's Newsweek, "rather than give Obama a clean, quick coronation to try to begin writing a new and better chapter, Washington (and especially his own party) seems intent on giving the president-elect as much trouble as possible while waiting for him to take the oath of office."
Not only is President-Elect Obama faced with tremendous challenges at home and abroad -- some of which have been ongoing for years, and others that have only recently turned into crises -- the events leading up to his inauguration have served as pesky distractions at best.
From Bill Richardson to Rod Blagojevich, and from Roland Burris to Leon Panetta, some of the new players (and old ones too, considering how many Obama appointments have gone to people from the Clinton administration) are already creating problems for the President-Elect. Not to mention Congress, especially Sens. Feinstein and Reid. In contrast to the warmth and camaraderie exhibited in the afterglow of the election, it seems the Democratic party is at each other's throats already and perfectly willing to take the soon-to-be inaugurated President along for the ride.
Fineman isn't the only columnist with a more cynical view on the upcoming months. Comedian Paula Poundstone writes -- with humor, of course: "We're putting the cart before the horse by celebrating a President taking office. Let's celebrate the achievement of the laundry list of goals. President Obama could keep a big map with push pins on it to keep track of how many countries hate us, and when we get down to only half, let's have a ball. I'll blow up the balloons myself."
Sadly, I have to agree. Empirically speaking, we have much to celebrate next Tuesday. But in terms of the specific challenges that we as a nation are facing and the lack of cooperation being displayed thus far, my optimism is cautious and guarded.
Even so, I do remain optimistic, if for no other reason than the example set by the Obamas as a family - one that all Americans, regardless of their race or ethnicity - ought to be proud to follow. On Sunday's edition of Meet the Press, Bill Cosby appeared as a guest and aptly summarized the cause for celebration that we can all embrace:
"Cosby called on the nation to unite and celebrate the diverse roles that the president-elect plays: An involved father, a committed husband, and a role model with a vested interest in the success of others. “What I have to do is give credit to Michelle [Obama] and to Barack and the beauty of what they’ve done with their children, with their lives,” Cosby said."
Congratulations to President-Elect Obama and to the new First Family on all that you have achieved thus far, and all that you will undoubtedly continue to achieve. May the many American families in need of positive role models look up to you as you lead our country over the next four years.
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