Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

EDITORIAL>>A new start for America

There are spectacles more lavish and majestic, but no celebration in the world ever matches the inauguration of a new president of the United States — any new president. There is a unique grandeur in the festive national toast to enduring principles — the peaceful transfer of power, the allegiance to the Constitution, the summons to hope and faith in trying times, the salutes to freedom, and the collegial call for togetherness and sacrifice for the common good, which mark the inauguration of every president, Republican or Democrat.

The inauguration of the 44th president yesterday did not disappoint on any score and, in fact, was by any account the grandest ever. The multitudes that filled not only the National Mall but the entirety of the federal district and downtown Washington were the largest by far in history, and it was estimated that more people watched the event on television than any spectacle in history.

The reasons were not mysterious. An epic vote had elected an African-American to run a country riven for much of its history by slavery and discrimination, and he was sworn in on the steps of a Capitol built by slave labor to reside in a palace also built by slaves. That moment sent a powerful message to a world where such possibilities are unthinkable or remote. The personality and extraordinary gifts of Barack Obama, his beautiful and brilliant wife and those exuberant children did not detract from the global curiosity.

This handoff of power in 2009 also bore special significance, even an urgency, because it occurs at a moment of extraordinary peril, the gravest economic crisis in 75 years. President Obama’s first task is no less a mission than saving capitalism in the face of the utter collapse of the financial order. It is another reason that the whole world was attuned to the pageantry on the mall. As banks and markets shrink and living standards fall, people from London to Nairobi and Beijing again glimpse the truth that if the government of the United States missteps, distance and borders cannot immunize them from the consequences.

Inaugurations always engender hope and a feeling of renewal. Such were the feelings, we recall, when eight years ago George W. Bush pledged unyielding fealty to the Constitution and promised a global search for peace, wider prosperity and limitless opportunity. How did that work out?

It would be easy to be pessimistic now that the high expectations for this brilliant and charismatic man will be dashed all too soon on the shoals of economic disorder and war. Even the massive stimulus program that he is pushing through Congress seems inadequate to the task.

But the atmospheric expectations that Barack Obama has fostered may be his most powerful tool. Polls show that public expectations and confidence in the president are far higher than for any new president in modern times, although they do not expect instant miracles. If he can maintain and channel that faith it will be worth trillions in stimulus spending. If he cannot, the mint cannot print money fast enough to do the job.

This morning the pageantry recedes and the gritty work of restoring economic order and international credibility begins. The new president can be sustained by nearly universal good wishes and prayers. The rest — the ideas, the leadership, the judgment and the hard work — he will have to provide himself.