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cc. The Obama era has begun. Like millions of people in the United States and around the world today I sat glued to the television watching the historic inauguration, relishing the man and the moment, its substance and symbolism. Tomorrow, of course the hard work starts and the harsh realities facing the new president will break today's magical spell. America's daunting challenges will puncture the bubble of messianic expectations invested in the young president. The extraordinary euphoria that has gripped this nation and parts of the world is obviously unsustainable, and it will inevitably evaporate in the predictable whirlwind of stumbles, setbacks, even scandals, not to mention the structural obstacles, the systemic imperatives of this mighty but beleaguered capitalist country and imperial power that will constrain bold changes, truly progressive transformation.

The challenges are immense indeed: ending two foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have depleted the nation of treasure and trust and abandoning the misguided commitment to "war on terror" which even Britain one of America's staunchest allies thinks is a mistake; managing the economic crisis and administering an effective stimulus package that will halt the economic recession and restore growth; expanding access to health care and improving the quality of education and overcoming the inequities of the prison industrial complex that has devastated African American and other minority communities; pursuing sound and sustainable domestic and global environmental policies; and promoting smart foreign policies and allegiance to multilateralism. The biggest challenge facing President Obama is how to manage the relative historic decline of American global supremacy in a world of new emerging powers and growing intolerance against authoritarianism whether within or between nations; in short, a more global and nationalistic world impatient with the old injustices and hierarchies of power and well-being and hungry for development, democracy, and self-determination.

The indefatigable anti-apartheid and human rights campaigner,

From his

He called for bold and swift action and strongly repudiated the policies of the Bush administration and the ideological bickering of the past few decades: "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government. Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good."

Finally, he promised a new compact with the world: "And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.... To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist. To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it."

Only the next few weeks and months and years will tell whether these promises will be kept, whether the faith placed in the Obama Administration by millions of people in the United States and around the world for transformative change is misplaced or not. The scholar in me does not expect profound changes in the conduct of America's domestic and foreign policies. But I celebrate the new president nonetheless. I have noticed many of my scholarly and activist colleagues and friends share the same ambivalence, a kind of cautious excitement. Excitement that the long history of struggle has brought this country to the point of having a black president, and caution that many of the country's structural features and deformities will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future. Given the ugly weight of race in American history, the election of President Obama diminishes the symbolic and substantive stranglehold of race on American society and political economy. That is to be welcomed.

But this is a day for rejoicing, not prognosticating the future. In the words of

A point stated with understated astonishment by Rupert Cornwell in the British paper, The Independent: "The most powerful man in the world is black.... Let us savor history today. Tomorrow for Barack Obama the hard part begins - the small matters of largely reinventing his country, trying to bring a semblance of order to an ever more turbulent world, and staving off economic Armageddon.... Today in one sense is a destination, the end of a journey lasting 233 years, from the very foundation of a country with its own original sin of slavery. There have been many milestones along the road: among them emancipation, Jackie Robinson and the integration from 1947 of baseball which truly was then the national pastime. Then came the 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Brown vs Board of Education, that desegregated America's schools, followed by the great civil rights acts of the 1960s. The dream set out 45 years ago by Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial - at the opposite end of the Washington Mall from where Mr Obama will speak today - may not have been entirely realized. The color of a person's skin still does matter in America - but how far America has come."

This is a deeply emotional moment for African Americans, unimaginable for centuries, inconceivable to their ancestors who endured the indescribable savagery of slavery and segregation, astounding even to the post-civil rights offspring often hindered by the abiding bigotries and excuses of low expectations. This day is a tribute to their struggles, their unshakeable faith in their humanity, their hopes that they could shift the trajectory of their nation's cruel history. Their noted yesterday, "the scene of hate, oppression, possibility and progress." The paper observed that the new president's triumphant motorcade "will retrace the path of Ku Klux Klan marches and roll past the ghosts of hotels and movie theaters that used to turn away people like him.... This historic stretch, bookended by the Capitol on one end and the White House on the other, has witnessed many of the milestones that made an Obama presidency possible. The Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were signed here. But it's doubtful that even a Harvard-educated wonder can get his arms around the scope of the civil-rights drama that has played out on this 1.2-mile slice of real estate. There are places more infamous for their scars - Selma, Birmingham - but none capture the sweep of the story the way Pennsylvania Avenue does, where laws were passed to enslave people and laws were passed to free them, and at least a dozen of Obama's predecessors would sooner have considered him a piece of property than a peer."

It is a poignant coincidence that President Obama's inauguration came a day after the Martin Luther King Day. The Obama presidency was made possible by the civil rights movement symbolized by Dr. King's leadership. Writing in

This caution was echoed by one of Dr. King's lieutenants and trail blazers for President Obama, the Rev. Jesse Jackson in an op-ed piece in

Clearly, President Obama owes much to Dr. King, but he is not the latter's predictable heir. The two not only belong to different generations, what President Obama himself calls Michael Honey: "Like Lyndon Johnson, Obama risks his domestic agenda by getting bogged down in a quagmire in Afghanistan." Already his lukewarm reaction to the Israeli invasion of Gaza is cooling enthusiasm for him in some parts of the world. Reports

President Obama confronts progressives with challenges they didn't face with the manifestly banal and uncompromising President Bush. They must go beyond making predictable critiques if they wish to influence the new administration, to keep its feet to the fire in carrying out some of its own more enlightened campaign promises. They need to constantly engage both his administration and America. To quote John Nichols: "Obama knows not just the rough outlines of the left-labor-liberal-progressive agenda, but the specifics. He does not need to be presented with progressive ideas for responding appropriately to an economic downturn, to environmental and energy challenges, to global crises and democratic dysfunctions. He has, over the better part of a quarter century, spoken of, written about, and campaigned for them."

He continues: "The way to influence Obama and his Administration is to speak not so much to him as to America. Get out ahead of the new President, and of his spin-drive communications team. Highlight the right appointees and the right responses to deal with the challenges that matter most. Don't just critique, but rather propose. Advance big ideas and organize on their behalf; identify allies in federal agencies, especially in Congress, and work with them to dial up the pressure for progress. Don't expect Obama or his aides to do the left thing. Indeed, take a lesson from rightwing pressure groups in their dealings with Republican administrations and recognize that it is always better to build the bandwagon than to jump on board one that is crafted with the tools of compromise. Smart groups and individuals are already at it."

He concludes with a pertinent historical analogy: "Franklin Roosevelt's example is useful here. After his election in 1932, FDR met with Sidney Hillman and other labor leaders, many of them active Socialists with whom he had worked over the past decade or more. Hillman and his allies arrived with plans they wanted the new President to implement. Roosevelt told them: ‘I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.' It is reasonable for progressives to assume that Barack Obama agrees with them on many fundamental issues. He has said as much. It is equally reasonable for progressives to assume that Barack Obama wants to do the right thing. But it is necessary for progressives to understand that, as with Roosevelt, they will have to make Obama do it."

As I watched the dignitaries from the three branches of government coming to be seated for the inauguration, the members of Congress and the Senate, justices of the Supreme Court, and some of the prospective cabinet secretaries the audacity of the moment was unmistakable: the new black president will be accompanied by only one black justice, the widely despised Clarence Thomas, and one black senator, Roland Burris, Senator Obama's briefly contentious replacement nominated by the impeached Illinois Governor. The contrast between the white faces of power and the colorful sea of people, estimated at nearly two million who stretched for two miles over the Washington Mall and all across the capital, was palpable.

The two images underscore the symbolic significance of this moment that American history had turned, if not a new chapter, at least a new page. The festive crowds had turned out to witness history, to celebrate history, for their rendezvous with history. Their ecstasy on the mall and across the nation was as infectious as it was intense, almost unprecedented and not seen in the inaugurations of any of President Obama's immediate predecessors. That did not stop the pundits from trying to find parallels in past inaugurations, many settling on the mystique of John F. Kennedy, another youthful president with a beautiful family, and much promise. Indeed, for Matt Bai, the inauguration of President Obama marks the end of "America's 50-year quest to find a truly transformational leader" a la Kennedy.

It is easy to be cynical about such theatrical political events as the inauguration, the ritualized performance in the American transfer of power. The claims trotted by pundits and the new president express the typical bombast of American exceptionalism. Writing yesterday, the astute British journalist,

But rituals and celebrations are the poetry in the prosaic lives of individuals, families, communities, and nations, the spice that seasons human existence. The explosive fervor for President Obama is not to be derided. To quote Younge again: "For those on the left who have sneered at this joy, tomorrow is their last chance to join the rest of the people whose liberation they claim to champion. Anxious to get their disappointment in early and avoid the rush, they have been keen to point out the various ways in which Obama will fail and betray. Their predictions may well prove correct. The best is not the same as adequate. He has been elected to represent the interests of the most powerful country in the world. Those will not be the same interests as those of the powerless. And yet, in the words of Friedrich Engels: ‘What childish innocence it is to present one's own impatience as a theoretically convincing argument.' Obama was the most progressive, viable candidate possible in these circumstances. A black American, propelled to office by a mass popular campaign pledging income redistribution and an end to torture and the war in Iraq, has defeated the Republicans and is about to replace the most reactionary president in at least a generation."

The millions of Americans and others around the world who are rejoicing at Obama's accession to the presidency are not simply overjoyed by Obama's personal success, although many are, nor are they delusional optimists, although some may be, but they are also, in the most elemental sense, projecting their own hopes and dreams for different lives, for better futures. Younge again puts the point most eloquently. "The global outpouring of support for Obama suggests a constituency for a world free of racism and war, and desperate to shift the direction of global events that is in dire need of leadership and an agenda. Dancing in the streets tomorrow afternoon doesn't mean you can't take to those same streets in protest from Wednesday. As one African-American activist said shortly after election day: ‘As much hell as we've caught over the past few hundred years, we should enjoy this one.'"

President Obama starts office with incredible support, with approval ratings of 83%! The poll ratings are simply dizzying, higher than for any incoming president in recent memory. Writes

The presence of President Obama also recasts struggles and representations of the African diasporas in various parts of the world. We are all familiar with the electrifying impact of President Obama's election in countries in the Americas and Europe with large and often marginalized African diaspora populations. The excitement extends to Asia including Iraq, the burial ground of American imperial hubris, where the country's estimated 2 million Blacks have apparently made , where Indians of African descent tend to be racially despised, the country has "been overwhelmed by the undisguised pleasure of seeing a brown-skinned underdog triumph against all odds over a white establishment.... Many Indians believe Obama's victory makes all things possible for people of color everywhere - including the many American grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins who, thanks to globalization, are part of the Indian extended family."

In another insightful article,

But he does more: his rise challenges Europe and other multiracial societies to look hard at their own histories and societies. "Political conversation in France, Britain and Germany, in particular, went almost effortlessly from how to keep immigrants out to how descendants of (mostly) immigrants could ascend to the highest office in the land - or why they could not... In almost every instance the simple, honest answer to the question ‘Could it happen here?' was no. The Obama story was indeed about race. But at its root it was essentially about white people. Would they vote for him? Would they kill him? It's not clear whether white Europeans would be any more comfortable with electing a black leader in their own countries than some Republicans were here. Having basked in a smug state of superiority over America's social, economic and racial disparities, Europeans were forced by Obama's victory and the passions it stoked to face hard realities about their own institutional discrimination, which was not better or worse - just different...."

As is well known in Europe, "To this day ‘immigrant' and ‘nonwhite' are often used synonymously in France. Indeed, given the conflation of immigration and race in Europe, the fact that Obama's father was an immigrant was in some ways as significant as the fact that he was black. In that sense every country potentially has its Obama, depending on its social fault lines. For the broader symbolism of his win has less to do with race than with exclusion.... [Obama's] central appeal was not so much that he looked like other Americans as that he sounded so different - and not just in comparison to Bush. For if Obama represents a serious improvement over his predecessor, he also stands tall among other world leaders. At a time of poor leadership, he has given people a reason to feel passionate about politics. Brits, Italians, South Africans, French and Russians look at Obama and then at Gordon Brown, Silvio Berlusconi, Thabo Mbeki, Nicolas Sarkozy and Vladimir Putin and realize they could and should be doing a whole lot better.

In conclusion, Younge observes: "Much of this is, of course, delusional. People's obsession with Obama always said more about them than him. Most wanted a paradigm shift in global politics, and, unable to elect governments that could fight for it, they simply assigned that role to Obama. His silence during the shelling of Gaza, however, was sobering for many. As a mainstream Democrat he stands at the head of a party that in any other Western nation would be on the right on foreign policy, the center on economic policy and the center-left on social policy. Come inauguration day, that final symbolic set piece, the transition will be complete. The rest of the world must become comfortable with a black American, not as a symbol of protest but of power. And not of any power but a superpower, albeit a broken and declining one. A black man with more power than they. How that will translate into the different political cultures around the globe, whom it will inspire, how it will inspire them and what difference that inspiration will make will vary. From inauguration day people's perceptions of Obama will no longer hinge on what he is but on what he does."

Whatever indeed happens under the Obama Administration, its inauguration today has already changed the face of American politics. The African ancestors brought to these lands in chains are watching, but for once, probably with a smile. The long struggle for citizenship among their descendants has entered a new age, the Obama era.

*Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is editor of The Zeleza Post where this essay first published.

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