With the inauguration of any president, we are apt to hear exhortations to come together as Americans and support the new administration. We will be solemnly reminded that we have but one president, and he is president of the entire nation.
We suspect that this grand pronouncement is a lot easier to swallow for the people who voted for the new president than for those who didn't. Those who voted for the loser are apt to offer up some bland acquiescence -- "I hope, for the good of the country, that the new president succeeds" -- when what they really are thinking is: "I hope we can come up with somebody to beat this guy in four years."
That has been standard thinking for the hyper-partisan era we have been going through for about the past 30 years. And perhaps that era will continue for decades to come.
But the man who will be inaugurated president today offers a glimmer of hope that he has serious plans to foster a "post-partisan" atmosphere in Washington and to do his best to be, in reality, the president of all Americans. Barack Obama, on the campaign trail and after winning the presidency, has reminded us over and over again that America is tired of partisan rancor and the inertia it produces in government, and he wants to do something about it.
Hollow rhetoric? Maybe. But Obama has made an effort during the transition to his presidency to at least give the impression he is serious. Here are some examples:
Soon after the election, at Obama's urging, Senate Democrats decided not to punish fellow Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut for his avid support of Republican Sen. John McCain during the election. This was even after Lieberman had made a speech on McCain's behalf during the Republican Convention.
Democrats could have stripped Lieberman of his committee assignments. But Obama asked Senate leaders to forget about retribution and move on.
Obama asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, appointed by President Bush, to continue to serve in that post. That should help bring continuity to the conduct of the war in Iraq.
Last week, Obama went to dinner at the Washington home of conservative columnist George Will, a dinner attended by several other prominent conservative commentators. It was a symbolic gesture, but symbols can be important. Obama may have been trying to insulate himself from early criticism by being friendly, but establishing collegiality with the conservative punditocracy could help reduce partisan rancor in the days ahead.
In a gesture of particular interest to South Carolinians, Obama actively recruited Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to accompany Vice President-elect Joe Biden on a recent five-day trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. And last week, Obama held a 45-minute private meeting with Biden and Graham, who briefed him on their trip.
Graham is one of McCain's closest friends, and he campaigned hard for Obama's opponent from the earliest primaries to the waning days of the presidential campaign. But Graham also is a military lawyer who has served five active duty tours in Iraq, and he is something of an expert on the region.
He also is sure to be someone to whom Obama will reach out for bipartisan support in the months ahead. The fact that Obama is so openly courting Graham as an adviser and ally and that Graham could play a bigger role in national affairs is good news for the nation, this state in particular.
All this could be window dressing, empty gestures. Obama's bipartisan spirit could evaporate during the first congressional showdown.
But at least he is reaching across the aisle and, we can hope, laying the groundwork for a more civil political environment in Washington. Because we really do have only one president at a time, and we're all in this together.