I see the work of gods who pile tower-high the pride of those who were nothing, and dash present grandeur down.
–Euripides, in The Trojan Women,
referring to the fall of Troy
The inauguration of Barack Obama, “whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant,” is both a culmination and a beginning. The culmination is the milestone represented by the arrival of a black man in the office of president of the United States. That achievement reaches back to the founding ideals of the Republic–“all men are created equal”–which have been fulfilled in a new way, even as it resonates around a world in which for centuries white imperialists have subjected people of color to oppression. The event fully justifies the national and global jubilation it has touched off. This much is truly accomplished, signed and sealed.
The beginning is, at the very least, the beginning of post-George W. Bush America, and fact-tempered hope rather than joy must be the keynote. In this context, the event is like a candle that has been lit in a dark and gusty room. How high its light will blaze is anything but clear. For the election of this unreasonably talented and appealing man occurred together with a remarkable array of crises, of which the economic one is only the newest. A man and an hour: a familiar matchup. A lot has been said about the man. Analyzing the makeup of the new administration has become the new Kremlinology, and a good deal of ink has been spilled pondering whether the avatar of “vision” has opted instead for the status quo, whether the fresh breeze from the hustings has already stagnated in the swamps of the capital, whether a bold campaign platform is being traded in for mainstream governance. And it is true that a centrist drift has been unmistakable. Joe Biden as vice president, Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Robert Gates as defense secretary and Larry Summers as chief economic adviser–these are hardly fresh faces. The $275 billion tax cut as part of the stimulus plan was not calculated to please the Democratic “base.” Yet other appointments, especially those to environmental posts, have suggested a more venturesome presidency. And public expectations are high: nearly 80 percent of the people are hopeful about his presidency.
But what of the hour–the broad shape of the new world that Obama and all of us will face? If only the economic crisis were involved, the path ahead would have something of the known and familiar. Economic cycles come and go, and even the Great Depression eased up in a little more than a decade. But this year’s crisis is attended by–or embedded in–at least four others of even larger scope. The second is the shortage of natural resources, beginning with fossil fuels. Oil prices have fallen sharply from their peak of last summer, but does anyone doubt that when the economy bounces back those prices will rise with it?