Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama: Ready for his date with history

By DeWayne Wickham

BALTIMORE - On his way to this historic “Day One,” Barack Obama stopped his train here and spoke to a crowd about “restoring hope and opportunity in places that yearned for both.”

My hometown has seen better days, and the 40,000 people who greeted Obama on Saturday seemed as expectant as the rest of the nation about the swearing-in of this 44th U.S. president.

Over the past 18 months, I’ve taken my measure of the words and deeds of this man in up-close interviews, from a reporter’s perch in front of his podium and by watching him race around the stump locked in fierce battle with determined rivals over whom he prevailed.

Through all this, I have come to believe that Obama is ready for the awesome responsibility he assumes the moment he lowers his hand from the Bible used to swear in Abraham Lincoln.
Obama impressed me when we first met on the campaign trail in July 2007. Back then, when his desire to be president seemed to far outdistance the possibility of his election, I listened to him forge a new strategy for attacking the problems of the urban poor and marveled at how he craftily linked that effort to the anxieties of others.

In a speech that day, he called for spending billions of dollars a year to combat urban poverty. Moments later, he told me he would connect his war on poverty with the desire of middle-class Americans for greater financial security.

“You can t solve the problems of poverty if you’re not speaking to the larger anxieties that working people and middle-class families feel. The more we can say we’re going to fight on behalf of all working Americans and we’re (also) going to do extra stuff for those who need the most help, that s an argument we can win,” Obama said.

Last week, he impressed me and other members of a small group of liberal columnists with the way he handled questions for nearly two hours in an off-the-record session at his transition headquarters. Whether the questions were drawn from the front pages of newspapers or tested his broader knowledge of the world, Obama demonstrated a reassuring understanding of the issues. His answers were crisp, forthright and clear, not laden with the doublespeak that has marked the discourse of more than a few past presidents.

There was no insipid, mind-numbing talk of being “misunderestimated” or a dodging allusion to “what the meaning of the word is is.” Obama gave straight answers to tough questions - the kind of frankness and transparency that will bring a much needed change to the White House.

He also seemed genuinely willing to give people outside his inner circle, and beyond his political party, a chance to help chart this nation s path out of troubled waters.

It’s this willingness to not only try something new but also to take political risks that makes his talk of change ring true. And it is his will to change that offers us the real possibility that President Obama will usher in a new political era.

For Obama, change is not just a catchy buzzword; it seems to be a moral imperative.

“I believed that our future is our choice, and that if we could just recognize ourselves in one another and bring everyone together - Democrats, Republicans and independents; North, South, East and West; black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American; gay and straight; disabled and not then not only would we restore hope and opportunity in places that yearned for both, but maybe, just maybe, we might perfect our union in the process,” Obama said during the Baltimore stop of his symbolic train ride from Philadelphia to Washington.

The train trip was meant to be reminiscent of the one Lincoln took on his way to his 1861 inauguration. But in truth, Lincoln stole into the capital, using disguises and altered train schedules to elude a threatened assassination on the eve of the Civil War.

Obama’s trip was a triumphant ride to his date with history - and to a leadership challenge for which he is as prepared as anyone can be.

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