Toward a truly United State
This past Tuesday, as Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America, we saw a seemingly endless crowd of onlookers and supporters filling the national mall, elated and hopeful. Watching all of those smiling citizens welcome their new leader, I couldn't help but wonder: Were they more excited to see the Obama era begin or to see the Bush era end? This, as far as I am concerned, is a perfectly legitimate question — George W. Bush left office with an abysmal 22 percent approval rating, while Obama had been enjoying an approval rating of about 80 percent for his handling of the transition, according to polls conducted since mid-November. So mathematically at least, it seems that the nation's positive sentiments about the new president and its negative sentiments about the old one are about equal.
Of course, Obama's numbers will inevitably shrink after his "honeymoon" period ends, but it is hard to imagine that they will ever approach the lows seen by the Bush administration. The president faces what are widely acknowledged to be among the most daunting challenges any leader has ever faced (both by his colleagues in Washington and his constituents across the nation), and thus I expect that he will remain quite popular even when he fails to solve some of them, as his dedication to his new role is, for the most part, undoubted.
One of the most critical tasks Obama faces as president is to unite the country behind his vision for its future, to inspire confidence in his administration's ability to improve America and the world at large. While campaigning in 2000, Bush claimed he would be "a uniter, not a divider," but this, like many of his statements, ultimately proved to be patently false, as he lobbied for some of the most divisive pieces of legislation in history. According to a recent piece on CNN.com, "78 percent of those questioned said they believe Obama will be a uniter — 20 points higher than those who felt the same way about then President-elect Bush in 2000. Twenty percent say Obama will be a divider, 16 points lower than those who said the same about Bush." So when Obama said in his inaugural address that we as a nation must seek "hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord," the nation saw this not as empty rhetoric but as an announcement of a new type of American politics, a radical departure from the fear-mongering and partisanship of the past eight years. In his victory speech on the night of November 4th, Obama promised to be a president for all citizens: "To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn: I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too." On Tuesday, in another important first, President Obama acknowledged those Americans who do not believe in any religion, saying, "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers." Said David Domke, a professor of communications at the University of Washington in Seattle who has studied religious language in decades' worth of presidential speeches: "This inclusiveness is a signature moment in American inaugural history." Indeed, we may notice here a striking contrast with George H. W. Bush's famous 1987 exchange with reporter Robert Sherman, who asked the then Republican presidential nominee, "Surely you recognize the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists?" to which Bush responded, "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God."
Perhaps most importantly for Obama's ability to truly unite the nation is the fact that there is no question as to the legitimacy of his presidency. The results of the 2000 election, of course, were (and still are!) highly disputed, with Bush barely beating Al Gore in the electoral college 271-266. Bush's victory in 2004, while seen as more legitimate, was still met with numerous allegations of voter fraud (particularly in some hotly contested areas of Ohio), with the republican beating John Kerry in the electoral college 286-251. Obama, on the other hand, won the presidency beyond a shadow of a doubt, earning more popular votes than any other presidential candidate in history and defeating John McCain in the electoral college 365-173. Obama's popularity both in the U.S. and around the world has earned him a tremendous stock of goodwill, which he will surely use to his benefit when enacting controversial policies (as he will inevitably have to do when dealing with Afghanistan, Iraq, global warming and other issues). Even many of those who did not support him during the campaign have faith that Obama will perform effectively as president, with 70 percent of Americans wishing him well in office. From the looks of things so far, then, the nation indeed appears to be well on its way to an era of greater social unity.