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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 21, 2009

VOLCANIC ASH
Remarkable outpouring of hope at inauguration

By David Shapiro

The most striking thing about the weeks of unprecedented hype leading up to President Barack Obama's inauguration was the seemingly impossible hope Americans were pinning on our new leader.

Despite two punishing wars, 11 million job losses that have pushed unemployment to a 16-year high, widespread defaults on home mortgages and the steepest stock market decline since the Great Depression, there was giddy optimism in the air as more than a million people turned out in the cold to witness Obama's swearing-in.

More than 100 black-tie parties in Washington celebrated the inauguration and other galas were held around the country, including three in Obama's native Hawai'i.

A half-million people turned out for a star-studded Lincoln Memorial concert paying tribute to the Obamas, and an inauguration eve Oprah Show debuted "America's Song," a new national anthem of sorts composed in Obama's honor.

We've simply never seen anything like this before in American politics. Nothing even close.

As remarkable as the outpouring of hope was that Obama, cooly self-assured as he stepped into power, didn't shy away from the high expectations.

He acknowledged that he took his oath "amidst gathering clouds and raging storms," but the main message of his inaugural speech was a presidential articulation of the "Yes We Can" mantra that drove his campaign and inspired the outpouring of hope:

"Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met."

Borrowing a theme that worked for John F. Kennedy nearly a half-century ago, Obama presented himself as a citizen who had answered a call to service and invited fellow Americans to join him in the service of the country.

"For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies," he said.

Kennedy and Obama nicely bookend a pivotal time in our history; Kennedy was a key force in leading the nation out of the era Obama spoke of when his father wouldn't have been served in many Washington restaurants.

There's a direct line between the civil rights movement of Kennedy's time and Obama's election as our first black president far sooner than anybody dreamed possible.

Obama ranks with Kennedy as a true political prodigy, reaching the White House at a young age and after only brief service in Congress, based almost entirely on their shared ability to excite and inspire.

Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin made fun of Obama's former work as a community organizer in Chicago, but it was his brilliant ability to organize communities of voters that won him the presidency against daunting odds.

And the only way he'll fulfill the high expectations he carries is if he can now organize communities of his fellow Americans in common purpose.

Obama is idolized like a rock star, but that's how he carries himself. He projects an easy confidence, avoids drama, values practical solutions over ideology and is open to diverse points of view. He sees himself as a continuation of history, not a break from it.

He's chosen the high road at every juncture of his transition to the presidency, building important bridges by being unusually magnanimous to his election opponents.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell describes Obama as a transformational figure, and we all win if he proves to be right.

More than anything else, Obama represents possibility not the least of which is the possibility that there's still hope.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. His columns are archived at www.volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog at blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.