By Mike Hixenbaugh
Published Jan. 21, 2009
WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Barack Obama began the work today of “remaking America,” a tall order for a 47-year-old first-term president, given the dismal state of the economy and with wars waging in the Middle East.
But perhaps even more challenging for Obama will be balancing soaring public expectations for his presidency with sobering reality.
A crowd that appeared to far exceed 1 million marched into the nation’s capital Tuesday – some boarding trains and buses hours before sunrise – hoping to glimpse the president as he took the oath of office. Most of those crammed onto the National Mall saw Obama at the steps of the Capitol as a speck in the horizon.
Those who sat as far away as the Lincoln Memorial could hear the president’s inaugural address only through speakers. Some said they gathered to witness history; Obama is the first black president. Others, though, like Marcus Lewis, said they wanted to be there to see the first moments of a presidency that will “forever change the world,” and “usher in an era of fiscal prosperity, love and world peace.”
The new president enters office faced with huge problems, matched in size only by the nation’s expectation that he will fix them. Some in the crowd Tuesday said they believe Obama will help them get out of their mortgage. Others said they hoped he would help end conflict in the Middle East – where holy war has raged for centuries – and establish prosperous governments throughout Africa – a continent historically mired by tribal war and famine.
If those seem to be lofty hopes for a man who a few weeks ago was a first-term U.S. Senator, that’s because they are. On train rides out of the city Tuesday, conversations focused on the eloquence of Obama’s speech and on what is to happen now that the celebration has passed.
“He’s never going to live up to everyone’s plan for him,” said Sarah Hollister, a college student from Greensboro. “We want the economy fixed. We want the war in Iraq to end. We want the country to be safe from terrorists. We want health care for people who can’t afford it. We want fair wages. We want a lot.
“But most people are realistic, I think. The main thing we want above everything else is a leader who makes educated decisions and who is respectable.”
Part of Obama’s popularity might stem from the historic unpopularity of the president he replaces. Former President George W. Bush returned to Texas on Tuesday, leaving office with an approval rating that dipped as low as 20 percent during his final year.
Many in the enormous crowd booed Tuesday when Bush was introduced, while others sarcastically chanted “Nah-nah-nah-nah, hey-hey-hey, goodbye.” Many who were close enough to have seats, including former baseball star Reggie Jackson, refused to stand when then-President Bush emerged from the Capitol Building.
A number of people, like Jody Bush, cheered when a helicopter carrying the former first family took off from the East Front of the Capitol.
“I think part of my excitement about Obama comes from how much I disliked our leadership the last eight years,” Bush said, adding that she considered changing her last name after the 2004 election.
Bush, saying she’ll stick with her birth name for now, said she truly believes Obama has the ability within him to steer the nation out of recession and eventually go down as “one of the best presidents of all time. Up there with Lincoln and FDR and JFK.”
Others around her nodded in agreement.
Martha Hender was one of them. When she wakes up the next day, Hender said she expected the sun would be shining brighter, the temperature to be warmer and for birds to be singing louder.
The working mom from New York was joking, but her words seemed a perfect parody of the excitement buzzing in and around D.C. this week.
During a conversation with the BBC Tuesday night, veteran Washington journalist Bob Woodward said Obama’s speech was near-perfect given the mood of the country, but noted that it was missing one key word: “Patience.”
But with unemployment numbers soaring and some economists making tongue-in-cheek comparisons between the economic downturn of 2008 and the Great Depression, not everyone is ready to wait for things to turn around.
“We do have big expectations for him,” Joel Newsome, a 69-year-old glass blower, said while on his way out of the capital and back to Oregon. “But we’re not all naive. I know this guy isn’t the Messiah; he’s not a savior. But he does have great potential to unite this nation, and I plan to relish in that for as long as I can.”