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Published: Sunday, 12/28/2008

The other side of hope

What to think when the new president's themes are from Dickinson, his challenges from Dickens. Hope is the thing with feathers. Hope springs eternal. The triumph of hope over experience. The last, best hope. Of all we hope in Heaven! Hope is a waking dream. The hope of glory.

Whoa, we're getting a bit carried away with ourselves, aren't we? Truly, we are on a hope bender. Right now we have hope for all things - for the country, for our children, for our future, maybe even for our portfolios.

Nothing more American than that; in many ways, that is what America means. The late columnist Molly Ivins once said that she still believed in a place called Hope because there was no such place as Fingers Crossed, Ark.

Not to darken the mood, but I feel obliged to remind that there is a Bad Luck Mountain in Hampden, Mass., and to note that every political writer of a certain age remembers that Gary Hart lives in a place called Troublesome Gulch, Colo.

Even so, hope is bustin' out all over, "all over the meadow and the hill." This is, in fact, a Rodgers and Hammerstein moment in America. "There's a bright golden haze on the meadow."

The polls bear this out. The most recent Washington Post/ABC News survey shows that 68 percent of Americans are optimistic about the policies President-elect Barack Obama will pursue.

The new president is apparently the change people are believing in.

But amid the seaspray on his Hawaiian holiday, Mr. Obama surely recognizes that hope is both a tool and a burden. He is well-versed in the use of that tool; more so even than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he used it with brilliance and effectiveness in his presidential campaign.

But with hope's utility comes its burden. Hope is like a flame. It needs to be fed with oxygen constantly, and it can be extinguished immediately by an ill or errant wind.

The conventional wisdom is that Mr. Obama's first chores are to prepare for national-security challenges and to deal with the economy. Indeed, with the 111th Congress set to be sworn in more than two weeks before the 44th president is to be sworn in, there is every reason to believe that a stimulus bill could be in the President's Room in the Capitol, awaiting Mr. Obama's signature a few moments after he completes his Inaugural Address.

The truth is that Mr. Obama's first chore is not to manage diplomacy or the economy. His first chore is to manage hope.

It's not as easy as it sounds. When Time named Mr. Obama its person of the year, it borrowed the Shepard Fairey "hope" image of a thousand campaign posters. The concept of "hope" did not leap to the mind of Time's editors when they asked Mr. Fairey to produce a potential cover for the Person of the Year cover in 2007.

The choice that year was Vladimir V. Putin, who is not exactly hope's handmaiden. Mr. Obama, who hardly has a biography even though he has written two autobiographies, is indelibly associated with the title of one: The Audacity of Hope.

But now that we have put aside A Christmas Carol and move from Bleak House to Great Expectations, Mr. Obama's challenge is moving from the airy though sometimes melancholy poetry of Emily Dickinson, where hope perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all, to the unsentimental prose of Charles Dickens, whose list of novels includes one called Hard Times.

So along with the Dickens, this may be a time for a little touch of Illinois Sen. Adlai Stevenson in the night: to talk sense to the American people. This is what he said when he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in 1952:

"Let's talk sense to the American people. Let's tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains, that we are now on the eve of great decisions, not easy decisions, like resistance when you're attacked, but a long, patient, costly struggle, which alone can assure triumph."

Curing the ills of the economy and keeping terrorists at bay won't be easy. Creating a new regulatory culture that protects Americans' health, safety, investments, and environment without stifling Americans' initiative and entrepreneurship is not going to be easy. Hope will have nothing to do with its success.

We need an uplifting moment on Jan. 20, a little poetry as the sugar for the medicine that must follow. But this is not a saccharine moment.

It's a sober one.

Mr. Obama has an instinct for the pitch-perfect remark. One of the things he must indicate, on Jan. 20 and beyond, is that hope may be the overture for the Obama years, but it cannot provide the lyrics.



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