Obama: Riding With History

Barack Obama rose to the occasion last summer with this audacious address to a crowd of more than 200,000 in Berlin.

As the hours count down to his inauguration, Barack Obama must be hearing the hoofbeats of history. He certainly invokes it. Indeed, he seeks to be one of its great riders.

For all the president-elect's evocation of Abraham Lincoln -- and his own description of Lincoln in "The Audacity of Hope" as both deep-seated idealist and ultra-pragmatist was more revealing of Obama's political character than anything produced by any media outlet -- fate and his own design cast what Obama says as our brand-new president alongside somewhat more contemporary figures.

Obama takes office as the 44th president of the United States at a moment of multi-faceted crisis. But it is not a moment like that of Lincoln's inauguration. President Bush and his essentially feckless administration leave behind the worst economy since the Great Depression, an environment increasingly out of whack, two troubled, troubling, and mismanaged wars, a black eye around the globe, and a sense of fatigue from years of overwrought hysteria. Lincoln's challenge was of a very different nature.

So the figures of comparison for Obama, his fellow riders of history if you will, are, notwithstanding his hero Lincoln, different.

Obama speaks to a massive crowd in the same location where Martin Luther King declared: "I have a dream."

Most obviously, there is Martin Luther King. In an ongoing coincidence of history, Obama -- who accepted the Democratic presidential nomination on the 45th anniversary of the "I Have A Dream" speech -- is inaugurated as the first African American president on the day after Martin Luther King Day. And he addresses a vast crowd in the very same location where King delivered his most famous of speeches.

Nearly as obvious is John F. Kennedy. Many see Obama as his generation's JFK, with the capacity to do much more than the president cut down by an assassin's bullet at 46, a year younger than Obama is today.

And there is Franklin Roosevelt. Obama takes office at a time in which the economy is at its worst since the Great Depression which swept FDR into power. We're much better off than we were then, but more of the laissez-faire and that could change very quickly.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, inaugurated during the Great Depression, declared "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." While a useful notion for a frightened nation, he knew that reality was more complex.

Roosevelt was a great interventionist in the economy, producing the mixed private and public economy of today. Obama, in a time in which the economy is more complex, and more prone to manipulation, is producing another "New Deal." As he does, he seeks to calm to allow intervention to take effect.

FDR said that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Not exactly true, of course, as Roosevelt certainly knew, but a usefully calming sentiment for the occasion. Which is why Obama must, as he calms a jittery nation, put an end to the sort of financial manipulation that enraptured Wall Street in order to save Wall Street, along with the rest of the country that has been brought low by the derivatives rocket science of high finance. The "malefactors of great wealth," FDR's cousin Teddy Roosevelt called them, have romped across this country during the Bush/Cheney era like velociraptors in Jurassic Park.

Can Obama calm the nation as FDR did, while reining in the excesses of hyper-capitalism to save the best of it from themselves? Unlike Roosevelt, he won't be doing it as a traitor to his class. Can Obama foster innovation while serving as a steward of the commons? Can he make a globalized system work for the betterment of all, and not merely those best in a position to manipulate it?

Martin Luther King had a dream of diversity, equality, and opportunity which, 40 years after MLK's assassination, Obama came to embody. There is more to fostering diversity, equality, and opportunity than casting a vote for the first person of color to become president. But it's a start. As a result of which, Obama will be judged against King for the profundity of what he says. Lucky him.

Like Obama, John F. Kennedy, another avatar of a new generation, issued a clarion call of national purpose in a time of crisis during a different era.

Like Obama today, JFK was the avatar of a new generation. That's one reason, along with his cool and wit, he still seems contemporary, 45 years after his assassination in Dallas. Kennedy issued a clarion call of national purpose, and a call to national service.

The context was different. JFK became president at the height of the Cold War, "a long twilight struggle," as he put it, with an adversary far more formidable than the forces which attacked America on 9/11. Yet even in the midst of his martial rhetoric, Kennedy saw cracks in the pavement of that present through which sprouts of a more peaceful future could be encouraged to grow, a strain in his rhetoric which reached fruition in his American University speech of 1963 calling for a possible end to the struggle with the Soviet Union.

It's still a dangerous world, though the doomsday clock is much further from midnight than it was in 1961, and the forces of 9/11 and the jihadist tendencies behind them are hardly to be dismissed.

And Kennedy, with "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," declared an era of national service.

As he issues his own call to national service, what sense of national purpose will Obama evoke?

These are just a few questions suggested by the company of riders of history among whose ranks Obama has placed himself.

Fortunately for him, as Obama moves to the center stage not only of attention and influence but of actual power, he ascends on a stunning wave of popular goodwill and, perhaps better yet, patience.

The new CBS News/New York Times poll shows a big national consensus of optimism about the impending presidency of Barack Obama. This could be a problem for Obama, given the multiple crises besetting the US at the end of the Bush/Cheney Era. However, most Americans seem realistic about the nature of things, and of how difficult it may be to right the ship of state.

President-elect Barack Obama is the recipient of the highest levels of optimism and expectations of any modern president. Seventy-nine percent of Americans say they are optimistic about the next four years, according to the poll. Only 16 percent say they are pessimistic.

As a comparison, between 64 and 70 percent of Americans said they were optimistic before the presidencies of Mr. Obama's five predecessors.

Mr. Obama also enters the White House with the highest favorability ratings of any president in the last 30 years. Sixty percent view him favorably and only nine hold a negative opinion of him. By comparison, 44 percent had a favorable view of Mr. Bush in 2001, and 30 percent had a not favorable view.

As for the country, more than eight in 10 think things in the U.S. are worse now than they were five years ago, but 61 percent think things will be better five years from now.

And Obama takes power in powerful contrast to what preceded him.

A new Rasmussen poll shows that President George W. Bush leaves office with a big majority of US voters seeing him as one of the five worst presidents in American history. The Republican-owned poll has a whopping 57% rating him one of the worst presidents ever.

Fifty-seven percent (57%) of Americans say Bush is one of the five worst presidents in U.S. history, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. Just six percent (6%) say he was one of the five best, and 34% place him somewhere in between.

Republicans aren't much help to the retiring 62-year-old GOP president. While predictably 81% of Democrats rate Bush as one of the five worst presidents, so do 20% of Republicans. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans (65%) put Bush in the somewhere-in-between category, while only 11% say he was one of the five best chief executives.

Among voters not affiliated with either major party, 62% rate Bush as one of the five worst presidents, 31% somewhere in between and two percent (2%) one of the five best.

In August, a month before Wall Street's financial problems began hitting the front pages, 41% of Americans said Bush will go down in history as the worst U.S. president ever, but 50% disagreed.

A plurality (41%) say Bush will be best remembered for the war in Iraq, followed by 16% who say his response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and 14% for the economy. Six percent (6%) list the response to Hurricane Katrina and two percent (2%) his role in trying to achieve peace in the Middle East.

The juxtaposition of these two factors -- the goodwill toward Obama and high approval of his presidential transition, and the failure of Bush -- is a good sign for Obama as he listens to those hoofbeats of history that accompany him into office. With all the trouble he has to deal with, he can use all the good signs he can get.