Note: Yesterday I presided over Princeton’s celebration of the Inaugural. Below are my opening rermarks.
In less than one hour, Barack Hussein Obama will be inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States. But to call this moment historic is the worst kind of understatement.
After all in 220 years under our constitution, we have held only 65 inaugurations of 42 different men. Each of these men in their own ways under different circumstances changed the destiny of our nation for both good and for ill. So any inauguration is a historical moment.
In historical terms, this inauguration does indeed transcend almost all others.
First, the ascension of Barack Obama is a powerful symbol of opportunity and racial progress, not only in the United States but throughout the world. That a member of a formerly oppressed racial minority obtained the office of chief executive in a democratic election is not just a first in our history, but in Human history. Of course, it does not mean the end of the American Dilemma, but it is one of the great milestones of progress to date.
But this inauguration is also among the most important for much more somber reasons, for Barack Obama will inherit the leadership of a government and nation that:
· Is engaged in two wars
· Requires great vigilance about terrorism and security
· Is entering what is perhaps the economic recession in decades
· Faces a near collapse of its financial system
· Has witnessed many citizens struggle to keep their homes in the face of a collapse in the real estate market
Moreover, the country faces short and long term problems in the areas:
· Social security
· Health costs and coverage
· Energy dependence and climate change
As pressing as these issues are, President Obama will not have the luxury of turning inward. As a world leader, he faces
· A tenuous cease fire after another war in the Middle East
· The very real threat of the expansion of the nuclear club
at a time when American prestige has ebbed.
Of course, other presidents faced grave challenges as well:
President Washington governed an infant nation under a new constitution that easily could have failed due to foreign intervention or the internal squabbling of the states.
President Lincoln took the mantle of a country on the brink of Civil War and preserved the union only by fighting and winning it.
And of course, President Franklin Roosevelt inherited the worst economy in American history and was ultimately drawn into the cauldron of world war.
Each of these presidencies offers insights and wisdom from which President Obama may draw: lessons about hard choices, lessons about sacrifice, lessons about the intertwining of principle and politics.
But the most important lessens may be the humbling ones, the lesson that problems of such magnitude do not magically disappear in a year or two, and the lesson that success is not preordained. After all, for every Lincoln, there was a Buchanan and for every Roosevelt there was a Hoover: otherwise decent and capable men who faced similar circumstances yet failed to resolve the crises the nation faced.
So given this backdrop, today is a day of historic hope. Regardless of the principals, partisanship, and ideologies that divide us as Americans, it is day in which we as Americans place our trust in a new president and pray that he may embark on a historical presidency of progress and renewal.