AMONG the burdens Barack Obama will shoulder when he takes the oath of office today at noon will be expectations so great that it is almost certain that he cannot meet them all.
Certainly, America's needs are great, its disappointment with the outgoing administration deep and broadly based, and its hunger for a new direction palpable. Mr. Obama's recognition of those themes, and his ability to communicate a vision that resonated with people across the country, not only won him an election but built up a huge reserve of good will and optimism about what he will be able to accomplish.
In addition, the hopes of millions of African-Americans will ride alongside Mr. Obama as he makes his way down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. And many will see the ghosts of every African-American who worked, fought, and died over the last 390 years standing behind Mr. Obama as he addresses the nation for the first time as president.
More than any president in recent memory, Americans have invested Mr. Obama with their hopes and dreams. After eight years of an administration that pretended to be working for the good of the people while actually pillaging taxpayers and the economy, squandering the country's riches in unwarranted foreign wars, and damaging its standing in the world, America is starved for real leadership.
That need is evident in the latest Associated Press-GFK, New York Times-CBS News, and Washington Post-ABC News polls, all of which show that Americans have great confidence in Mr. Obama. In the Times poll, for example, 79 percent were optimistic about the next four years. That's higher than for any of the last five incoming presidents. Even 58 percent of the people who voted against Mr. Obama on Nov. 4 shared that optimism.
Sixty percent of respondents in the Times poll had a favorable impression of Mr. Obama, and large majorities predicted he will be a good president, bring change to Washington, and make the right decisions on the economy, the war in Iraq, fighting terrorism, and the Middle East. And he did even better in the Washington Post poll, where about 70 percent said he understands their problems and 80 percent viewed him favorably. In the AP poll, 65 percent said he would be an above average or outstanding president.
It's as if, for many Republicans as well as Democrats, all the questions about his experience and judgment just disappeared like morning mist on the Potomac River.
Nowhere are the expectations higher than in the African-American community. As the Rev. Robert Culp told The Blade in a story yesterday, Mr. Obama's inauguration is "more than a changing of the guard. It's a changing of the times. I feel it will institute a whole new order of how things are done in the world. I really do."
African-Americans deserve to feel great pride, even a sense of fulfillment, in today's events. And all Americans who are struggling in the current recession, those who are depressed by the way America has conducted the war on terror, and those who despair of ever achieving peace in the Middle East, need to believe that hope is not audacious but, rather, the path to a better future.
But that optimism, that hope, that confidence must be tempered - as Mr. Obama has said repeatedly - by the knowledge that fixing America's problems will not be easy, quick, or painless.
We would all do well, therefore, to add a fervent "Amen" to Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, who asked the crowd attending an inaugural concert Sunday in front of the Lincoln Memorial to pray for "understanding that our president is a human being and not a messiah."