Well, I don't know about y'all, but judging from the body language of the millions of revelers (1.8 million, officially, but if there was ever an occasion for rounding up, this was certainly it) on the Capitol Mall last Tuesday, I joined a whole lot of folks in this country who breathed a collective sigh of relief that Barack Obama was actually sworn in (the Chief Justice's verbal gaffe notwithstanding) as our 44th president. Call me a worry wart, but ever since the election I wondered whether that moment would ever come. Was it just me, or did it seem like an eternity? Almost, but not quite, as long as it took for the election to finally happen. It was a little like the feeling I used to have during the lead-up to an important, pass/fail-determining exam in school when I had a hard time imagining that the day after the test would ever actually arrive. Surely, I thought at both times, the earth would spin off of its axis, or some other cataclysmic event would intervene.
For me, nothing solidified the feeling of elation at the day's events so much as watching "Marine One," the presidential helicopter, take off from the Capitol carrying George W. Bush to his well-deserved exile wherever it is in Texas (where better?) he's gone into hiding. Once again, Gerald Ford's words upon replacing the disgraced Richard Nixon seemed so apropos: Our long national nightmare had finally ended. I think, at the moment that helicopter took off, I understood how the people of Uganda, the Phillippines, or Chile must have felt when they realized they wouldn't have Idi Amin, Ferdinand Marcos or Augusto Pinochet to (as Nixon once referred to it) "kick around" (or, more importantly, be kicked around by) anymore.
As for Bush, I don't really care where he's gone to live his post-presidential life, as long as we don't have to look at or listen to him, ever again (strangely enough, the same way I feel about Sarah Palin), and it's somewhere federal marshals (or, at least, agents of the appropriate international tribunal) can find him now that the time has come for him to be held accountable for the many crimes he and his cohorts committed during the cluster fuck his presidency constituted.
I watched, along with the rest of a grateful nation, as Obama took over the reins of government. For me, the day was marked, and set off in stark relief to the tone of the last eight years, by the grace and aplomb of a bright, articulate, good-humored, engaging man who, at every step in the day- and night-long process, exuded the kind of assurance, comfort and, yes, even the celebratory joy that had to warm the cockles of the heart of even the most die-hard detractor. In that spirit, I am even willing to forgive him the fashion faux pas of wearing a white tie for the evening's festivities without the de rigeur accompaniments of a wing collar shirt, waistcoat and "tails." I mean, come on, Mr. President: cool and tradition are not necessarily mutually exclusive concepts.
I can't help but feel, however, a sense of dread at the era we're about to enter, not just for our country, but for Obama in particular. Oh sure he enjoys an approval rating, coming in, of over 80%, and everyone, from his most ardent supporters, to his most dedicated political opponents, seems more than willing to pay lip service to giving the new president time to mop up the various disasters he's inherited from his predecessor. But the fact remains, the confidence of the American public is his to lose, and that confidence may well be measured by a "what-have-you-done -for -me-lately" attitude. Patience and optimism, though apparently in abundant supply in the afterglow of the election, don't have the half-life of radioactivity, and can just as easily dwindle if there are too few short-term results to justify them.
The historic character of the first African American presidency presents many opportunities, but, at the same time, many pitfalls. In spite of an election which seemed, by its outcome, to bridge a long-standing racial divide, the fact remains that there are still many in this country who harbored (and continue to do so) age-old, racially-based resentments. Just look at the demographic breakdown of the voting results (and not just in many Southern states), if you don't believe that. And most African Americans will tell you that they are held to a higher standard when it comes to achievement, no matter the endeavor.
What that means is that even though Obama will be given a fairly wide berth to implement his policies, his inevitable stumbles along the way are less likely to be met with universal equanimity. There will be a significant segment of the population who will take an "I-told-you-so" attitude towards Obama's missteps, and it won't just come from rabid hatemongers like Rush Limbaugh (who has already announced his desire to see the new president fail), but from people who will view the occasion as the vindication of their reluctance to accept the historic change Obama's presidency represents.
I can only hope that the qualities that resulted in Obama's election (i.e., the content of his character rather than the color of his skin) will be the basis on which his accomplishments (or the lack thereof) will be judged, and that the era we're about to enter will be marked by a continuation of the kind of racial reconciliation the election represented, rather than by a return to the kind of racial rancor the eras that preceded it did.