I was driving to my oncologist appointment just after 9:00 a.m. yesterday when the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court inaugurated Barack Obama as President of the United States. I heard it on the radio, and I teared up a little. The oath of office itself was surprisingly short, and both Obama and the Justice stumbled a little with the words in their enthusiasm—it sounded refreshingly informal and real.
Almost a year ago, even before the economy started seriously tanking, I wrote about Obama, saying:
America and the rest of us need inspiration now. America's citizens need to say to us, and to themselves, "We have been on the wrong path, and we will choose a different and better way." To see and to listen to Barack Obama as president will demonstrate the beginning of that choice. If I'm right, I think he will win.
He did win. Yesterday he could celebrate and dance; today he has to start doing stuff. Web nerds like me see good signs in small things, like the new whitehouse.gov website, which is well designed, has a blog with RSS, uses valid code, and is search engine friendly. More importantly, he has already ordered a halt to military commission prosecutions at Guantánamo Bay. He meets his military advisors this afternoon to plan withdrawal of U.S. armed forces from Iraq.
His response to America's unusual religiosity (for a Western democracy) is also worth noting. President Obama was not involved with and did not endorse this ad in the Washington Post from the American Humanist Association (via PZ Myers), but I think it is a good sign:
The headline is "President Obama: Living proof that family values without religion build character," with supporting quotes from his bestseller The Audacity of Hope ("I was not raised in a religious household..."). Some people are gonna get steamed over this one, I'm sure, and use it to continue maligning the new President. But though he is a Christian now, Obama obviously knows the benefits of a secular state, and why his country's founders created America as such. He understands that the non-religious —like both his parents—can be good people and raise healthy children, like him, who make wise choices.
That he and his administration not only recognize, but celebrate the diversity of their country—and that, in his own carefully crafted words during the inaugural address, "our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness"—is a strength in itself. He, like us, has seen in the past decade how parochial sectarianism can do vast harm around the world.
The man has enough good will from Americans, and many of the other few billion of us, that he need not work miracles immediately, but he also seems to know that he doesn't have too much time. He must work with the citizens who elected him to realign his country's domestic, foreign, energy, and environmental policies. He must translate his ability to inspire as a candidate into a mandate to inspire as the world's most powerful person. I think, and hope, that he is up to the task.