There are days in the history of a nation when it's not about reaching a major decision. Rather, it's about deeply felt emotion. Tuesday was such a day for the United States of America.
Above all else, the people gathered in Washington D.C. and huddled in front of television screens across the nation were proud of their new president, Barack Obama. Number 44 is the first African-American to have achieved the highest office in the land -- he is from a minority that has often been poorly treated in the US. Americans with African roots were slaves and working drones before they were citizens and voters. The Capitol too, the grand symbol of American democracy which provided the backdrop for President Obama's swearing in, was built by slaves.
The self-cleansing of America, which began with the Civil War 150 years ago and continued with the Civil Rights Movement a century later, celebrated a dramatic closing act on Tuesday. History has moved on. The country "has emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united," Obama intoned from the Capitol steps in his inauguration speech. "We cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass."
The second strong emotion of the day was fear. No world leader has been as clear as Obama was on Tuesday about the dangers presented by the global economic crisis. They were sentences that pattered down on the gathered crowd like a cold rain. "Our economy is badly weakened," President Obama said. The failing is the "consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some." But the blame, Obama said, must be shared by everyone; the crisis comes as a result of "our collective failure to make hard choices."
But the new president didn't stop there. He spoke of the fear felt by many that "America's decline is inevitable." But instead of warning against too much pessimism, as government leaders do the world over, President Obama took a different path. "Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real," he said. "They are serious and they are many." A silence fell over the city.
Which brings us to the third emotion left behind by Inauguration Day. It is an emotion that one could almost touch from near President Obama's podium: his solitude.
From the left, the bright lights of the television cameras were so blinding that one could hardly even see the camera operators behind them. Before him was an endless sea of people, faceless in their numbers. Directly in front of him was a wall of bullet-proof glass.
Indeed, it seemed as if Obama was giving his speech from inside a capsule made of light and glass. For those up close, the scene was reminiscent of film scenes shot in prisons where family members and prisoners can see, but not touch, each other -- where the words near and far describe the exact same situation.
In the days before the inauguration, Obama repeatedly talked of the "bubble" in which he and his family would soon find themselves. He is now sealed tightly within it.
The moment of the inauguration is fleeting, but the emotions that this day has released will not disappear overnight. The pride of Americans should take him a long way -- there is currently no limit to the political capital he enjoys.
But fear of the future will prove just as durable as those positive emotions. Pessimism has crept into the land of optimism. Obama's job is to banish that pessimism -- and not just rhetorically, but in reality.
To do that, he will have to overcome, not his personal isolation, but the political isolation which currently plagues the US. If Europe continues to regard the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as American wars, if the Arab world rejects him, if the financial crisis is seen around the globe as primarily an American mistake, and if he receives the cold shoulder from the international community regarding the closure of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, as German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble gave him last week, Obama, in his splendid isolation, could fail.
His success also depends on him succeeding, in the field of foreign policy, in turning skeptics into admirers and admirers into active followers. If one could wish Barack Obama anything on the occasion of his inauguration, it would be that he may become a modern-day Tom Sawyer.
Tom Sawyer, as we know, was ordered to whitewash a fence by his Aunt Polly. He stood there, brush in hand, contemplating the endless task ahead of him.
The boys of the town mocked him -- until he managed to portray whitewashing the fence as something desirable. "Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?" he asked. When the first boy asked for the brush, Tom was visibly reluctant to let him take over. Suddenly boy after boy came by, wanting to be allowed to whitewash the fence. Tom even demanded payment. At the end of the day, the fence was beautifully whitewashed and our hero was in possession of marbles, apples, a couple of tadpoles and a tin soldier, among other things.
If the world were to judge Obama in the same way Mark Twain did his protagonist, then the 44th president would have achieved a lot. After the whitewashing incident, Twain writes, Tom said to himself that "it was not such a hollow world, after all."