Clear-eyed and hopeful
President Bill Clinton left a peaceful and prosperous country to his successor, George Bush. Eight years later, Bush's successor begins his presidency with no such advantages.
And no illusions, either. “Our nation is at war,” Barack Obama said shortly before his inauguration. “Our economy is in crisis. Millions of Americans are losing their jobs and their homes. They're worried about how they'll afford college for their kids or pay the stack of bills on their kitchen table.”
He could have added that America's health-care system is broken, and our air and water polluted, but he'd made his point, which is that Americans have ample reason to be fearful and despondent. But, he quickly added, they mustn't be, and he's not. Instead, he's hopeful, he told a huge crowd, and what gives him greatest hope “is you — Americans of every race and region and station who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there.”
This is not just talk. Obama seems to have inspired Americans to do their best, especially young Americans, more than any new president since John Kennedy. Clinton did it to an extent, but his efforts were hampered by a hostile news media. The media have been generally kind to Obama, and the Internet has weakened Big Media's influence for good or evil.
To be sure, it's not just the young that Obama excites. Only the cynical could be unmoved by the sight of 89-year-old Pete Seeger singing “This Land is Your Land” at an Obama rally on the Capitol mall. Seeger is of a generation that believed this country really did belong to all its people. America is a more generous place when it listens to the Pete Seegers in its midst.
And then there's race, of course. Maybe Americans will eventually be able to not notice that Obama looks different from his predecessors. We haven't reached that point yet, but his election shows that race is not as large an issue as it once was, and if he proves to be the kind of president America needs right now, it will shrink even more.
The kind of president America needs right now is someone both high-minded and practical, soft-hearted and hard-nosed, which is to say the kind of president that it has always needed. Some satisfy the demand. Some, like Bush, fall terribly short. Criticism of the former president may be redundant at this point — of few people can it be so truly said that his record speaks for itself — but it's essential that the new administration avoid the ideas and attitudes of the old. President Obama has so far shown no inclination to smirk. That alone is encouraging.