Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Difference

Eighty-eight months ago, we were told that everything had changed forever in America - and nothing would ever be the same. We were at war. There was a new sense of national purpose, of shared responsibility. We'd all have to adjust to new security measures. It was the death of irony.

Well, nothing lasts forever. I never bought the death of irony – it was resurrected within days. President Bush frittered away the world’s good will and America’s collective willingness to sacrifice. Our national dialogue became even more partisan and mean-spirited than before. The economy collapsed – just as the terrorists who attacked us on September 11, 2001 intended.

The security measures remain, of course. I dutifully removed my shoes and coat this morning on my way home from covering the inauguration. I pulled my laptop from its cozy corduroy sheath. I padded through the metal detector in my socks. A sign announced that the TSA is exploring “Whole Body Technology” that could soon let us keep our clothes on at the airport (I thought “Whole Body Technology” was what helps me pick out the right sunscreen at Whole Foods).

Now, once again, everything has changed. Everything is different. For how long this time?

Like many of the million or two who crammed onto the frozen grounds of the National Mall, I am filled with hope. But mine is the hope that the American people won’t give up too quickly on their new president. A CBS News-New York Times poll on the eve of the inauguration found many Americans willing to wait for positive results from Barack Obama. They recognize that the United States has enormous problems, and the consensus in the survey was that it might take two years for Mr. Obama to get the creaking, leaking ship of state back on course.

But in a month, or two, or three, when President Obama’s First 100 Days have been televised, scrutinized and digitized, when the chattering class has picked apart the ins and outs and ups and downs and nits and bits of every presidential stumble and hiccup – and unemployment is still rising, and the stock market is still sputtering (or worse), and the troops are still in Iraq – how quickly will that patience wane?

The public has a short memory. It also has a short attention span. And it famously keeps its presidents on a very short leash. George Herbert Walker Bush went from a record 91% approval rating in the spring of 1991 – to summarily drummed out of office 18 months later. His son went from an approval rating in the same neighborhood after 9/11…to Tuesday’s ignominious departure, taken away by helicopter as tens of thousands below hooted and waved bye-bye to the most unpopular, and many would say the worst, president in American history.

You may say I’m a cynic. No - I’m as idealistic and romantic as any soul on this earth. I just also believe in pragmatic realism, and I come by it honestly. I have been a student of history and politics for more than 40 years, and it just doesn’t pay to burden a fellow human being with impossibly unrealistic expectations. Never forget that Barack Hussein Obama is just a man. He’s an uncommonly disciplined man, a very smart man, who is thoughtful and eloquent, not to mention handsome and tall, which never hurts when it comes to self-confidence and the ability to persuade others. But it is a rare soul who can fairly bear the burden of others’ dreams. Every generation or so, an extraordinary individual transcends our natural limitations: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela. But even among those, only Mandela lived to see his people enjoy the freedoms he helped them achieve.

Someday, perhaps Mr. Obama’s name will fall naturally at the end of that line. Most of us hope so. Rush Limbaugh doesn’t; he said on the radio this morning that he hopes President Obama fails, because he disagrees with his policies. At the moment, thankfully, he is an exception.

For some, Mr. Obama has already delivered. Janet Jones Kern drove from Farmington Hills, Michigan all the way to Washington to see Mr. Obama sworn in. She is white. In 1971, she gave birth to a biracial daughter. She was a single mom, raising a half-black child alone in the Midwest.

“I always felt alone,” she told me. “I endured a lot of hard times, a lot of pain and bias.” She eventually married a black man. Her daughter married, too, and had children of her own.

“But I always felt that the playing field wasn’t exactly level, and that I brought them all into a tough world. I just always felt this nagging doubt, that there was a deficit for my children and grandchildren. Now I feel validated. My little five-year-old granddaughter can look me in the eye and say, ‘Grandma, I’m going to grow up and become President of the United States of America.’ And for the first time,” she told me, in the cold shadow of the Washington Monument, “it’s really true! I just feel joyous. I don’t feel like I’m alone anymore, I feel like the whole world is with me.”

She didn’t have a ticket. She got nowhere close to the West Front of the Capitol. But, she said, “I’m just thrilled to breathe the same air as this man. I know it’s going to be long and hard and tough” for him to turn the country around – but for her, the difference is already real, and in her case, it will last forever.

The difference is already there for Nancy Pelosi, too. I’ve interviewed the Speaker of the House three times in the past ten days, the last time yesterday in her Capitol office. From her windows, we could see the presidential podium, the scaffolds, the chairs waiting to be taken down after the proceedings of the day before. We looked out along the empty Mall, to the Washington Monument and beyond, where so many people had shivered and cheered and cried 24 hours earlier. For Speaker Pelosi, the change has already come.

“I just can’t stop smiling. It’s an incredible thing!” She beamed at me. “No one knows better than I how important it was that we make this change. President Bush’s presidency wasn’t just one of missed opportunities,” she said, “but of making matters worse. Whether it’s the war in Iraq, the economy, the budget, the environment – you name it. He took us backward. When that helicopter went up yesterday,” referring to the Marine chopper that carried the Bushes away from the Capitol, “I thought – bye bye!”

And here she waved at the sky. “It’s like a ten-ton anvil being lifted from my chest.”

And did she feel even a single pang of pity for President Bush, as he sat on that stage listening to the new president trash the Bush policies? Uh…no.

“I don’t have to be concerned about what President Bush is thinking anymore. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on it. I don’t feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for the one in six children in America who are living in poverty. I feel sorry for the people who have lost their jobs because of the economic downturn. President Bush? Goodbye!”

The change is also real for the African-American security officer who helped me find the Speaker’s office, after I got lost in the maze that is our Capitol. As he was walking me to the proper elevator, he suddenly started giggling.

“I know, “ I said sheepishly, “I’m an idiot. I went to the Senate side by mistake.”

“No, it’s not that,” he said with a smile.
What then?
“My president is a black man.”
And with a giddy guffaw, he pushed the elevator button and sent me on my way.

President Obama is already on his way, signing Executive Orders to close Guantanamo Bay, make sure American interrogators don’t torture terror suspects and freeze the pay of White House staffers. In the next few days, he’ll sign more, reversing Bush policies on abortion, ethics, maybe on gays in the military. These are things he can do with the stroke of a pen. Would that resuscitating the economy and ending two wars were that easy. Simple principle and belief aren’t enough to create jobs and restore lost wealth. For those who have placed perhaps too much faith in him, who have turned Barack Obama into a vessel for all their national aspirations, the wait for things to truly be different may take a little longer. They may end up disappointed when he can’t be everything they thought he was. Perhaps they should temper their hopes with a dash of reality, lest they be dashed completely if he fails to live up to those lofty expectations.