Let us savour 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.
But today at noon, beneath the western front of the Capitol, a truly extraordinary event will take place. Forecasters say the temperature will struggle to reach freezing, as this slender, almost delicate, figure whose name was virtually unknown five years ago, is sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.
But any meteorological chill will be banished by the human warmth, exuding from a million souls or more crammed on the Mall in Washington listening to him, and from maybe billions more around the world watching on television. For one day at least, and however irrationally, relief will replace fear, and gloom will be swept aside by a vast tide of hope.
The anticipation that stretches from America's capital to almost every corner of the earth has many reasons. One of the worst and most unpopular presidents in US history is departing. There is a sense of new beginning, of fresh new energies brought to bear on the enormous problems of the hour. But the most remarkable thing is the most obvious. The most powerful man in the world, the man who steps into the shoes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan is black.
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 realised. The colour of a person's skin still does matter in America – but how far America has come.
One goes back to that imploring cry of another King, the black motorist Rodney King whose arrest and beating by Los Angeles police officers in 1991 marked one recent nadir of race relations here. "Can't we all get along?" he pleaded as race riots later swept his city.
This week, everyone is getting along. Sunday's concert, at the spot where Martin Luther King spoke, was a festival in which colour did not matter. And today, a black man will issue the inaugural summons – to his own race, to whites, to Hispanics and to every other fragment of America's ethnic mosaic. And it seems the most natural thing in the world. This may not quite be a post-racial country yet. But Obama is a post-racial president, a black man who won a greater share of the white vote than John Kerry, the last Democratic candidate for the White House in 2004. And his election may be only the beginning. He is the most prominent member of a younger generation of black politicians, some of them mayors and governors, who did not grow up during the civil rights struggle. Like Obama, they won election by appealing to white voters. His advent thus marks another milestone. Race remains a factor in American politics. But it is no longer a decisive one.
And why should it be, considering the importance of the moment? No matter who took the oath of office today, he or she would be doing so at a watershed in American history. The conservative Republicanism dominant here since Reagan was elected in 1980, has run its course.
Obama has a chance to usher in an equally long Democratic era. Government is back in fashion, and so is "progressive" thinking – to use the vogue word for a liberalism that for three decades here has been ashamed to speak its name. But the changes run far deeper than even politics. The 44th president is coming to power at the most critical economic juncture in 80 years. The task of his administration is no less than to reinvent American capitalism. This will involve far more than the $800bn stimulus package that Congress will soon pass. It will also require a complete overhaul of the financial markets, and of the American ways of health care, energy consumption and education.
Eight years from now (or four if everything goes dreadfully wrong) historians will be debating the Obama legacy. By then race may be the least significant component of it. No matter the colour of his skin, the weight of expectation that will settle on his shoulders at noon today is more than any single individual should be asked to carry – even the leader of the most powerful country on earth.
But if Obama truly places the US on a new course, he will be remembered alongside Washington, Lincoln, and FDR as one of the greatest presidents. If not, he will go down as one more failure. Whether he was white or black will have been irrelevant.Reuse content