On Tuesday, let us remain optimistic

The HeraldJanuary 16, 2009 

This big hope-filled bubble so many of us are floating on could pop, sending us hurtling back to earth.

Landing with a thud, we could find ourselves back in the land of broken dreams, where smart ideas and good legislation are stifled by special interests and partisan bickering. Where mendacity and subterfuge abound. Where real problems are ignored while false ones are magnified. Where only the privileged prosper while the poor multiply.

Where the rallying cry is, "No, we can't."

It could happen. The weight of the current fiscal crisis could be too great for the incoming Obama administration to bear. Repairing the economy could consume all the energy of the new president, while hopes for a new approach in a post-partisan Washington wither.

Then again, this time around things might be different. This may be the real dawn of something new.

For now, put aside cynicism and let yourself hope. We are entitled to that after the eight miserable years of the Bush administration.

Let yourself be stirred by the lofty speeches, the music, the prayers, the poetry of inauguration day. Allow yourself the luxury, while this presidency still is in its infancy, of believing that over the next four years we will make progress in solving some of the intractable problems that have haunted us for years, decades, even centuries.

Let yourself hope that, with a black man in the White House, the racial divide will narrow.

We can be realists tomorrow or a few weeks down the road when, inevitably, the old politics kick in. Hope is one thing, but it would be naive to assume that, with the blink of an eye, a click of the ruby slippers, we suddenly are living in a world where partisan interests never collide.

Nonetheless, it seems possible that we are about to embark on a new path, that we are at the beginning of a new era. This seems more momentous than the traditional transition from one presidency to the next.

This is a generational shift, something akin to what voters must have felt when John F. Kennedy took the oath of office nearly half a century ago. Barack Obama, at 47, may technically be a baby boomer but he missed the angst and drama of the 1960s.

While he may be aware, bone deep, of the hardships and heroism of the long civil rights march, those older than he fought those battles. He is, in effect, the product of that struggle. And while he may be grateful for strides made in the '60s on many fronts, he is not bound by the obsessions of that era, the biases, attitudes and fixations ingrained in those who grew up during those turbulent years.

Obama is free to write the next chapter as he sees fit. That, in fact, is what he promised to do during the campaign and what a majority of voters asked him to do: Give us change we can believe in.

As with Kennedy, Obama will energize, mobilize, leave his political imprint on a new generation of voters, some becoming politically involved for the first time. And this election is likely to have a lasting effect on which candidates those young voters will support and how they will view the function of government for the rest of their lives.

For many of the hundreds of thousands of people who will crowd the mall in Washington to watch Obama's inauguration, the trip will be a pilgrimage. The pilgrims want to be a witness to history, even a part of history. When they are asked years from now where they were when Obama became president, they can say, "We were there. We stood in the freezing weather, jammed together with thousands of others, watching history being made in real time."

Millions more, not only in the United States but also from around the world, will be watching, too. They will have no assurance that Obama will succeed as president, that he will be able to overcome the burdens placed on him even before he takes office, that the old ways won't prevail once more.

What they will have, however, is hope.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by e-mail, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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