Like a great many other Americans at this singular moment in history, I have rarely been so alarmed about the state of the world -- and have never been so hopeful about the promise of a new president.
Standing amid hundreds of thousands of celebrants between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument at the "We Are One" concert on Sunday, and watching Barack Obama's inaugural address two days later, my family and I felt the thrill that raised so many spirits. Despite the dark economic times, the wars, the terrorist threat, the health care mess, the impossibility of quickly surmounting any of these crises -- despite even the overarching fear that America's best days may be behind us -- hope was ascendant.
No human being could possibly meet the soaring expectations that electrified those inaugural crowds. But our new president may have what it takes to uplift the country as much as any president could.
I worried in a pre-election column that Obama's down-the-line liberal voting record and associations with some extremists did not give a centrist like me much confidence that he would "resist pressure from Democratic interest groups, ideologues, and congressional leaders to steer hard to the left."
But since then he has done much to fulfill the hope expressed in that same column that he might prove to be "the pragmatic, consensus-building, inspirational Obama who has been on display during the general election campaign."
He has chosen a talented, experienced, pragmatic team of national security and economic advisers who seem more focused on fixing what's broken than on grinding ideological axes.
His retention of Bush Defense Secretary Robert Gates is one of several signs that he "does not want to be the guy who lost Iraq when it is close to being won," as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told The New York Times.
I have no idea what Obama should do to revive the free-falling economy. But I have as much confidence in his team's ability to figure that out as in any other group of experts I can imagine.
More broadly, Obama has shown the intellectual self-confidence and curiosity to approach ideological adversaries with respect and learn from them. Perhaps he also has the political skills to build a coalition broad and potent enough to overcome the bitter polarization that has dominated official Washington and infected the nation for so long.
I hope to see Obama marginalize the likes of both talk radio's Rush Limbaugh, who recently said, "I hope he fails," and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, who recently implied that Obama will have failed unless he hounds ex-President Bush and his national security team with criminal prosecutions for their brutal interrogation methods.
While many on the left spew hatred at the deeply flawed but honorably motivated Bush, Obama has paid tribute to "the sincerity and worthiness of President Bush's concerns about democracy and human rights." The new president has also put aside the bitterness of last year's campaign by making extraordinary efforts to build a collaborative relationship with his defeated rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
The world knows that Obama spoke the truth when he said, "In no other country on earth is my story even possible."
Obama's Inaugural Address combined eloquence with hard truths. He spoke of "our collective failure to make hard decisions" and said that "on this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for too long have strangled our politics."
"Because he is young, handsome, and intelligent," as The Economist puts it, "and also because as the child of a Kansan and a Kenyan he reconciles in his own person one of the world's most hateful divisions, Mr. Obama carries with him the hopes of the planet." Adds my former National Journal colleague Carl M. Cannon, now of Reader's Digest: "Let's not lose sight of how profound a development we are privileged to witness." Let's not.
Obama carries the hopes of African-Americans in particular. It was beautiful to watch the joy of the millions for whom his election fulfilled an impossible dream. Victimized for centuries by a system of brutal oppression, many have been misled amid the astonishing racial progress of recent decades by demagogues who claim that racial oppression remains pervasive. It is a false claim, and one that will not educate a single black child, create a single good job, or take a single step toward ending the desolation of poor black people.
"There is an entire generation that will grow up taking for granted that the highest office in the land is filled by an African-American," Obama said in an interview with The Washington Post. "I mean, that's a radical thing. It changes how black children look at themselves. It also changes how white children look at black children."
To be sure, the Obama administration will bring some policies, and some judicial nominees, that a centrist such as me won't like -- as would also be the case if Republicans were in charge. Democratic congressional majorities and interest groups, including trial lawyers, labor unions, and the racial-preference lobby, will push hard for their pet programs, many of which Obama himself has already endorsed. Congress has started moving, for example, on Obama-backed civil-rights amendments that could bring a new flood of job discrimination suits -- more of them unwarranted, I would guess, than well-founded.
But the new president's exceptional intelligence and faithfulness (so far) to his campaign stance as a consensus-builder give me hope that he will stop short of ramming through extreme partisan measures just because he can get the votes, and that he will strike careful balances.
Consider, for example, the balance struck by Obama and his Attorney General-designate Eric Holder on the need to remain vigilant against terrorism while undoing Bush-Cheney claims of virtually unlimited presidential power to override civil liberties.
On this front, it was impolitic of me to suggest in my December 6 column that to avoid dismantling essential defenses against terrorism, Obama should "kick the hard Left gently in the teeth." That upset some bloggers.
I should have said "gently in the shins." And I am glad to report that Obama and Holder have been kicking away:
• While vowing to close Guantanamo, both have strongly implied that they will spurn the demands of liberal groups that they release the dozens of apparently dangerous Guantanamo detainees who cannot be criminally prosecuted.
• Holder made it clear in his confirmation testimony that the real problem with Bush's warrantless wiretapping program was not any unjustifiable invasion of privacy, as extreme civil libertarians have long maintained. Rather, the real problem was that for years Bush secretly defied the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act based on the dubious theory that Congress could not limit his powers, when he should and could instead have persuaded Congress to amend FISA. Bush and Congress finally did that last year, with Obama's support.
• Although Obama opposed a provision conferring immunity from lawsuits on companies that had helped the government implement these wiretaps, Holder wisely dismissed the clamor from the Left for Congress to repeal it.
• Holder made it clear that the president does have some war powers that Congress cannot infringe -- a view that extreme civil libertarians have long trashed as indefensible. He also said: "I don't think there's any question but that we're at war," implicitly rejecting the left-liberal/European elite view that Al Qaeda presents only a law-enforcement problem.
• Holder testified that he would support extension, with appropriate amendments, of three valuable USA PATRIOT Act provisions that have been furiously denounced by the ACLU, other extreme civil libertarians, misinformed librarians, and others. These include Section 215, which authorizes the FBI to obtain an order from the special FISA court to require any business or other organization to surrender any materials relevant to a foreign terrorism investigation.
• He also endorsed new FBI investigative guidelines denounced by libertarians as encouraging racial profiling.
• While declaring waterboarding to be torture and renouncing use of such brutal interrogation methods, Obama and Holder have strongly implied that they have no use for the Left's lust to prosecute as "war criminals" Bush, Dick Cheney, or the many other high-level officials who approved waterboarding and other brutal methods in reliance on Justice Department advice that they were legal.
There's no doubt that these harsh methods, symbolized by Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and Bush's bravado have badly stained America's image in much of the world. So it's nice to see the Washington Post Foreign Service reporting that Obama's election has made it "cool to be an American again."
Of course, we may be back in the international doghouse once it becomes clear that Obama will continue some of the Bush policies that have been so reviled abroad. But the world knows that Obama spoke the truth when he said four years ago that "in no other country on earth is my story even possible."
And we Americans know the truth that he spoke in front of Abraham Lincoln's marble statue on Sunday: "Despite the enormity of the task that lies ahead, I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure, that the dream of our Founders will live on in our time."
This article appears in the January 24, 2009, edition of National Journal Magazine.