Change And Challenge

Change And Challenge

AP Photo

Barack Obama with his wife, Michelle, at his side, takes the oath of office to become the 44th president of the United Statesat the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009.


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By Carlos Santos/Media General News Service
Published: January 20, 2009

The slender man with the odd name, the charismatic senator with the soaring rhetoric, will make history today.

When Barack Obama becomes the nation’s first African-American president, historians say it will be one of America’s watershed moments.

“I distrust saying anything’s historic before it happens,“ said Ed Ayers, a historian and president of the University of Richmond. “But in this case, I’ll make an exception. I’m still rubbing my eyes as I realize what happened here.“

“In terms of the social integration of African-Americans into American society, it is monumental,“ said Brian Balogh, an assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

But Obama, the history maker, also faces a monumentally precarious time in American history. He will be assaulted by a confluence of political and economic troubles not seen in this country in more than 70 years.

“His being African-American is extremely important symbolically,“ said Dan Palazolla, a political scientist at the University of Richmond.

“But in another way it doesn’t matter. There are responsibilities and expectations tied to that office important to the future of America. After Tuesday, the symbolism is only part of the story. The other part happens to be that he’s president at an extraordinary and challenging time.“

Obama faces two wars - in Iraq and Afghanistan - a wounded economy that conjures up the ghost of the Great Depression, and the omnipresent threat of a terrorist act that, the past has provenproved, can be pulled off by a handful of zealots.

But then Obama, with his Kennedyesque persona, has already done what many thought was impossible. He won the top job.

He will be inaugurated the 44th president of the United States shortly before noon on Tuesday.

“So many African-Americans never thought this would happen,“ said Renee Hill, an associate professor of philosophy at Virginia State University.

Hill, who is co-director of the school’s Institute for the Study of Race Relations and daughter in-law of civil rights giant Oliver Hill, said she sees Obama’s presidential victory as “a giant step. But it’s not just a giant step for African-Americans. When equality increases for one person, it increases for everybody.“

She is quietly amazed at Obama’s victory. “Sometimes we don’t see the cracks in the wall,“ she said, citing the successes of former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in holding powerful jobs.

“Sometimes, you don’t realize the wall has been breached until it happens.“

Her father-in-law, whom Obama met several times before his death, told her at one time he couldn’t even get a law passed to stop the lynching of blacks. Now Obama will take control of a country that segregated his race - from public schools, from public spaces, from public transportation - a scant 50 years ago.

“We’ve come an enormous way,“ Hill said. “I think he will give everybody hope.“

Former Gov. Linwood Holton, who worked diligently to end segregation, remembers as governor ordering as late as 1970 that a colored-only drinking sign be taken down in Pulaski County.

When Obama won, “I felt an intense joy. I’m sure I had tears in my eyes. I still do when I think about it,“ saidHolton said.

Obama won his victory with his skill at oratory, with his charisma, his almost electric connection to people and with his message. He also won because of an unpopular war and an economy that deteriorated at a key time in the presidential campaign.

“Because everything was so horrible, because of the economy, because of wars, it made it easier for people to look outside the norm,“ said Hill.

But “that could cut both ways. Voters could have concluded that things were too dire to elect someone so new to the political scene, and especially someone black and new to the political scene. It is a testament to his campaign and his perceived competence that voters would come out for him at such a difficult time.“

“Americans sense we’re up against a new set of challenges,“ said Balogh. “Americans are willing to entertain newer and fresher approaches.“

University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato takes a more straightforward view of Obama’s election. “He won because he was a Democrat in a year when any attractive, mainstream Democrat was going to win.

“Bill Richardson would have won the presidency, Joe Biden would have won, Hillary Clinton would have won. ... The real race was for the Democratic nomination.,“said Sabato.

Sabato said the Democratic victory was aided by the “enormously” [dst: partial quotes warranted in this case:  ]unpopular President Bush, an unpopular war and an economy in meltdown.

Obama was all about changing all that. Change was Obama’s mantra, which he invoked like an incantation at every campaign stop, many of which had the air of a high-school pep rally. “Obama picked the theme of change when people in fact wanted change,“ said Palazolla.

Obama also seemed to transcend race as he campaigned across a mostly white America. Hill noted that Obama won without doing “any of the old school tricks - playing the race card or the victim card. Give him credit, he just inspired people, especially young people.“

“Obama is the most de-raced black politician alive,“ said Palazolla said. “He doesn’t focus on race at all. He tapped into what made white suburban centrists say ‘this makes sense.‘“

Obama could become what historians label a transformational president. Balogh said Franklin D. Roosevelt was one. Roosevelt, because of World War II and the Great Depression, was the first to forge a “direct relationship between the president and the American people.“

Ronald Reagan was another transformational president who “was able to change the ideological playing field ... returning America to what he claimed was[were] free-market roots,“ said Balogh. Reagan, of course, also was in charge when the Berlin Wall and all it symbolized, came crashing down. Reagan also is credited with policies that ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Because of the unique challenges that Obama faces, he too could be transformational depending on his success. “Presidents matter a great deal, but other things matter as well.,“said Balogh.

“There is an opportunity here for him to be transformational. His rhetoric is transformational, but then if you look at the people [from the Clinton administration] he put in place, it suggests incrementalism,“ said Balogh said.

Obama faces incredibly high expectations, which Balogh said the president-to-be is trying to reign in. “Will people who think Obama will bring world peace and solve the economic problems be disappointed? Yes. I think those people whose expectations are high but realistic have a chance of seeing those expectations realized over the long run.“

The ebullience over Obama, who attracted so many young voters, echoed the jubilation that President Kennedy elicited from a younger generation in the 1960s. Sabato said some wags are saying Camelot will now be replaced by Obamalot.

Sabato said high expectations for Obama’s presidency are a “nice problem to have, but it is one of his major difficulties - people expecting too much too quickly. The American public is notoriously impatient. As always, the honeymoon won’t last,“ Sabato said Sabato. “Though this one might last longer than most.“

With Obama’s election, is the Civil War finally over?

“Race and slavery are the great fundamental challenges this country has faced,“ said Ayers. “This is wonderfully healing.“

Lacy Ward Jr., the head of the Moton Museum, a civil-rights museum in Farmville, said Obama’s election “has brought us to a post-racial world. A lot of us have a tough time going there… Under segregation our talent pool would not have allowed us to use all the talent available to us to solve America’s problems.“

“I think this is a significant step toward bridging the racial divide,“ said Wesley Hogan, an associate professor of history at Virginia State University and a specialist in race relations and women’s history. “But it’s certainly not the definitive step. We’re not anywhere near the last step.“

She noted that, proportionately, African-Americans still face hard times. “Who’s living in poverty? Who’s in prison? Who’s going to college?“ she asked.

Holton, whose efforts to integrate public schools included sending his own children to predominantly black Richmond public schools when he was governor, seemed more optimistic about racial harmony. He is now 86 and has seen massive changes in Virginia in his lifetime.

“No single incident or episode effects complete cure of an evil,“ he said. “But I don’t know how you could take a bigger step to healing race relations.

“It doesn’t heal it, but it sure as hell helps.“

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