Sixty years ago today, a ship carrying my family sailed around the Statue of Liberty into New York harbor. Having fled first Nazism then Communism, we had finally arrived in the United States. Aside from the birth dates of my children, it was the most important day of my life.
The America in which I grew up was known as a champion of international law, a builder of strong alliances, a defender of freedom, and an inspiration to those forced to live behind the Iron Curtain. Americans have good reason to look back with pride.
Last Tuesday, we were given good reason to look forward with hope. There is a promise in Senator Obama's election that goes beyond any explicit pledge made during the campaign. That potential may be found in the reaffirmation of America's identity as a true land of opportunity and in the confounding of damaging assumptions about our country that have spread unchecked across the globe these past eight years.
As President-elect Obama warned in his victory speech, we must be patient. The election's outcome provides no guarantee that the multi-faceted woes we currently face will soon disappear. Every president inherits headaches; President Obama will inherit the whole emergency room. The challenges we must meet in Iraq and Afghanistan, the threat from al Qaeda, the dangers of economic breakdown and environmental stress, will not be resolved in the first one hundred or even the first one thousand days of a new administration. To expect otherwise is to misunderstand the complexity of today's world.
It might be tempting to suggest that all our next president must do is mimic the example of my first president, Harry Truman -- and turn back the clock to the era of our Greatest Generation. After all, American power and prestige were then at their height; we had defeated Hitler, founded the UN, launched NATO, and forged the Marshall Plan.
Shouldn't it be the new administration's goal to recapture that golden moment? The answer is no.
Back in 1948, Japan and Germany were occupied by foreign troops, Europe was in ruins, China was engulfed in civil war, and much of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East were still under colonial rule. Americans might want to revisit the era of Truman; but the world has other dreams.
To young people across the globe, the cold war, let alone the second World War, is ancient history. The conflict that has made the deepest impression on them is Iraq -- and the image of America many now carry in their heads is shaped less by Omaha Beach than Guantanamo Bay.
President Obama's mission will be to restore America's influence in a world with numerous centers of power and multiple sources of danger. To succeed, he must be persistent. It will take time to get our fiscal house in order, to extract ourselves responsibly from Iraq, and to develop a more effective response to violent extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It will take time to formulate innovative policies toward each of the many trouble spots around the globe -- from the Middle East and Caucasus to the Sudan and Congo It will take time to restore our nation's reputation as a champion of human rights and international law, and to show a renewed commitment to fighting the axis of evil -- poverty, ignorance, and disease.
It will take time to convince skeptics that the promotion of democracy is not a mask for imperialism or a recipe for the kind of chaos we have seen in the Persian Gulf. And it will take time to establish the right identity for America in a world that has grown suspicious of all who claim a monopoly on virtue and that has become reluctant to follow the lead of any one country.
It will take time for the next president to succeed, but the opportunity will be there. There is no doubt that a guiding hand is needed. That direction is unlikely to come from those now opposing our values: from radical populists, aggressive nationalists, autocratic modernizers, or the apostles of holy war.
Such guidance could well come from a new brand of American leader, a leader who listens and who blends Truman's judgment with an up to date sense not only of what is possible but of what can become possible through the right blend of energy and faith; and it could come from a country that has just voted freely and peacefully to choose its president for the 56th time.
We cannot go back to that distant day, three score years ago, when my family arrived on these shores. That world is gone. We can, however, hope to build a future of greater justice, broader prosperity, and larger freedom, with the United States once again serving as a cornerstone.
That will be President Obama's mandate -- and the responsibility of us all.