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Inauguration Day was a unique moment of national bonding.
I was there, amid the estimated crowd of 2 million jubilant citizens celebrating this history-making day.
Only an unrepentant cynic would dismiss the gushing goodwill the crowd offered to the new president. We endured the bitter cold for endless hours so we could accept President Obama’s promise of hope, change and inspired renewal — and so we could bear personal witness to history.
By becoming president, Obama made two historic leaps.
As the first American president who is black, he symbolized the culmination of centuries of struggle for full inclusion. Coming the day after the annual holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Obama’s inaugural led a large number of black Americans and others to believe that his election represents the realization of King’s dream of racial equality.
While I would not go that far, given the ongoing and perhaps worsening racial disparities, certainly Obama’s ascendancy to the highest office in the nation represents a page being turned. For many elderly black people in the crowd who tasted, as Obama noted, the “bitter swill” of segregation, such progress is especially undeniable.
The second, less discussed leap, was Obama’s success in ending the long era of conservatism and Republican Party rule. Though cautious in his words, his inaugural speech issued a strong rebuke of the Bush-Cheney policies.
When Obama spoke of “gathering clouds and raging storms,” he essentially was defining the consequences of the last administration.
When he stated that it was time to replace “hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord,” he was repudiating the governing strategy of the last eight years.
When he said, “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals” and vowed that “we will not give them up for expedience’s sake,” he indicted outgoing President Bush and departing Vice President Cheney for countenancing torture in our name.
The joy in the inaugural crowd was not only tied to Obama’s elevation, but to the long-awaited farewell of Bush and Cheney. You could sense it, unmistakably, when the crowd jeered boisterously as Bush boarded his helicopter and flew off into retirement.
Whether Obama wants to go down the road of more liberal and progressive policies or not, much of his base is already there. The celebrants on the mall, and the bulk of the nearly 67 million who voted for him, want change and seek a new direction.
Black Americans claim a special relationship with Obama. And inevitably, there will be tensions between blacks and non-blacks over the nature and focus of his political agenda.
For blacks, it will be important to realize that Obama was elected to represent all Americans.
For whites, it will be important to realize black Americans and other marginalized and underrepresented groups are part of this country, too.
But on this day, there was harmony in the air and exultation on the ground. For those who attended the inaugural events, and the tens of millions around the country who celebrated wherever they happened to be, the nation stepped forward together, as one.
That, too, was a leap.
Clarence Lusane is an associate professor at American University in the School of International Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.