FRED WOLFERMAN: Tall Order: Can Obama Turn His Rhetoric Into Reality?
I have to admit that, much as I disliked him as a president, I think Jimmy Carter had the right idea about inaugurations.
I remember seeing him and Rosalynn hoofing it down Pennsylvania Avenue in a symbolic show of thrift and simplicity. Of course, the crowds were fairly minimal, as even in his pre-cardigan days Carter was viewed without much enthusiasm, and it was easy to maintain a low-key atmosphere.
Times have changed. The hoopla surrounding Barack Obama's inauguration has set records for extravagance, in both dollars and emotion, that are likely to last as long as the Republic.
In a way, of course, this is completely understandable. There is much to celebrate about the new president: The first African-American to hold the office: young, intelligent, inspirational -- and, perhaps most important to most people, not George Bush.
Tens of thousands of police, soldiers, Secret Service agents and miscellaneous emergency personnel were required to oversee the enormous crowds that wanted to share the spectacle. Celebrities from around the world entertained the masses, while even more rubbed elbows with each other and the elite at parties all over Washington.
The final cost of all this to the taxpayer will never be known, though much of it was paid for by 212 private donors about whose motives one can only speculate. The event received wall-to-wall television coverage on all the cable news channels for four days, and on the networks for all of Tuesday. The capital has never seen its like before.
At the center of it all was the speech, which now-President Obama made compelling in its presentation though it was quite pedestrian on its literary merits. This is not to say it was devoid of content.
Mr. Obama did his best to tamp down expectations rhetorically. He promised work and asked for sacrifice. He blamed Wall Street for its avarice and Main Street for its profligacy. He alerted the world that America will return to its roots; that freedom and security are not mutually exclusive. He made a special bid to Muslims to find common ground for peace.
He promised more efficient government and improved health care. There was a comparison to Washington at Valley Forge. He said all the right things, ticking them off clearly and emphatically. It was a speech impossible not to applaud. The question remains: Was anyone listening?
All presidents have discovered, usually sooner than later, that translating rhetoric into reality is an often-impossible task. We will learn in short order how well Mr. Obama fares.
His most rabid supporters appear to see only the Yellow Brick Road and the Emerald City. It remains to be seen whether Congress will even glimpse this vision. Its idea of work is coming in on Friday, and sacrifice means giving up somebody else's earmark. Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Reid have been busy for weeks proactively defending their respective turfs.
Our new president has no administrative experience whatever, yet he promises to tame the bureaucracy. He spoke of eliminating ineffective programs. Every president I can remember has said that; none has succeeded.
In fact, federal departments and programs have continued to sprout like dandelions in August. This new efficiency is to be realized as a trillion or more dollars are shoved into the economy. It is not a coincidence that the stock market headed directly south on the speech's completion.
Mr. Obama promised to leave Iraq and bring peace to Afghanistan. These goals will not find a single naysayer across the land, but that will not make them happen.
If he is to become the transformative president he aspires to be, he may well pursue his goal elsewhere than Washington, where he will meet the barriers of Congress, lobbyists and entrenched interests. He may make more progress if he takes his speech on the road, over the heads of all those people. There can be no mistake: He is a wonderful speaker.
If he can maintain his oratorical skills when the setting is shorn of all the folderol that accompanied his inauguration, he may well be able to drag institutional Washington in the wake of popular opinion. That is what he is going to have to do, because all the usual beltway predators will be on full alert, watching for the first stumble.
Good luck, Mr. President.
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by e-mail at email@example.com
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