How different was this inauguration from the last one four years ago that began George Bush’s second term in office. And at the same time, how similar.

This inauguration illustrated once again the great American yearning for the monarchy its Founding Fathers rejected — and fought a revolutionary war to reject — more than two centuries ago.

That’s what these inaugurations almost always have in common: the sense that a new monarch has been voted into the White House. Not just that: inaugurations are a reminder of American power and American exceptionalism. On inauguration day, Washington DC really is, palpably, a great imperial city.

At the same time, at times like this, when the election of a new president seems to represent a turning point in American history — turning points are hard to pick except in retrospect — what is on show is the American capacity for transformation and re-invention.

What was different about the inauguration of Barack Obama was partly that in almost every obvious way, he was the un-Bush: George Bush had slipped into obscurity even before Barack Obama raised his hand to take the oath of office.

I was there in Washington last time to watch George Bush sworn in for his second term. One of the most enduring memories of that day was of the streets of Washington and the great Mall between the White House and the Capitol, packed with overwhelmingly white people, so many of them from Texas — or at least pretending to be from there.

All dressed in designer cowboy gear, those cowboys and cowgirls, there in Washington, filled with the sort of triumphalism that, I imagined, invading armies exude when they enter a conquered city.

In a sense, that’s what they were, these hootin’ tootin’ — if not quite shootin’ at least not on this day — Bush supporters, an invading army. Washington DC is a predominantly black city and an overwhelmingly Democratic one — Barack Obama polled 92 per cent of the vote in the presidential election.

On that inauguration day four years ago, Washington’s black community — more than 70 per cent of the population — stayed home and mourned. So too did liberal white Washington, though they mourned in more salubrious circumstances.

Today, it looked like at least half of the millions who packed the Mall and all the streets and squares of this beautiful city were African Americans. What I recalled, as I watched them celebrate, in tears, were those terrible images of black suffering and abandonment just a couple of years ago, when New Orleans was drowned by Hurricane Katrina.

Just a few years ago. What Katrina’s aftermath so graphically illustrated was the extent of black poverty and disadvantage in America, the extent to which American cities — and suburbs for that matter –remain segregated, the extent to which black and white Americans do not share a common history and future.

Just a few years later. Here was Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and their two daughters, standing there on the podium in front of the Capitol dome, and out there on the Mall, black men and women and children seeing themselves reflected, for the first time ever, in this First Family.

The power of this is undeniable, but the substance, beyond the symbolism is harder to discern. What the coming of President Barack Hussein Obama will mean, substantially, for the blacks who live in the run-down, violence-infested, black neighbourhoods of Washington DC — within spitting distance of Capitol Hill — is impossible to predict.

Except to say that the expectations for change in the black community of Washington with the coming of Obama — and in black inner city communities throughout America — are high and in the end, will not be met.

In a sense, that’s a metaphor for the expectations of all Americans and for that matter, people around the world of the Obama presidency. These expectations are impossibly high and will not be met. But that’s for another time.

Mind you, the fact that the American stock market dropped by 5 per cent even as Obama was watching and waving and smiling during the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue seems to suggest that perhaps the hard heads aren’t expecting any Obama miracles any time soon.

It was a strange and paradoxical inauguration in some ways, both inspiring and muted, Obama’s speech, frankly not all that memorable and yet in some fundamental way moving, more moving than any inaugural speech I can recall since Kennedy’s in 1960.

This is not just because these are rotten and scary times and a muted inaugural speech is wholly appropriate. The moving thing it seems to me is a reflection of Obama’s political skills, those he has displayed in the presidential transition months.

He manages to somehow encourage hope while emphasising the enormous challenges he — and the country and the world — faces. There is a sort of calmness about him, and a solitariness that is both affecting and re-assuring.

I am not sure now what exactly it was that he said in that 10 minute — felt like 10 minutes anyway — inaugural address, but what was striking was how alone he looked and how comfortable he seemed to be with that, how calm he was, even while he was saying that the future, the immediate future looks dark and threatening.

It struck me that Barack Obama is not just an historic political figure, but that beyond the issue of his race and what his election represents for black Americans — and for that matter, non-white people everywhere — he is a singular politician.

Maybe just maybe, Obama is a politician for whom the proverb “cometh the hour, cometh the man” was coined.

Change you can believe in: you’ve got to hope so.

Michael Gawenda is a former Fairfax Washington correspondent and editor of The Age.

Peter Fray

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