America is living a strange and magical moment. In a fickle universe, US presidential inaugurations are a quadrennial rock of predictability, like leap years and the football World Cup. But never has there been one quite like the inauguration this week of Barack Obama.
The event is always a republican version of a coronation, quasi-ecclesiastical even as it flaunts its populist trappings. But when Obama takes the oath of office at noon on Tuesday from John Roberts, the Chief Justice, the occasion will be far more, a beacon of hope in a tempest of fear. The closest in modern times was in 1961, when John F Kennedy brought hope and renewal. But back then the country was not terrified, merely jaded, in an era when the fundamentals of American civilisation seemed immutable.
No longer. The meteor Obama has arrived in the midst of America's worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. But somehow that only makes it more thrilling, rather as in wartime, when life itself could be extinguished at any moment. This weekend Washington is a city, and America a country, caught between jubilation and anticipation on one side and bankruptcies, lost jobs and lost homes on the other.
But, however fleetingly, pleasure is outdoing pain. For Democrats, it is enough that after eight years one of their own is back in the White House. And even many Republicans are moved by the first black President, one of whose parents was from the Third World. And in a country where politics has so long been a business of old people, practised on behalf of old people, the young feel that at last they have a stake in the game.
Then there's the impressiveness of the man himself. Obama has a limpid intelligence and a wonderful way with words, as his inaugural address will surely confirm. But he is not a nanny like Jimmy Carter, nor does he have the manipulativeness of Bill Clinton or the amorality of Richard Nixon – to name but three conspicuously intelligent recent presidents.
Undeniably too, he benefits from a national outpouring of relief that George W Bush is gone. Not quite everyone feels that way: astonishingly, one in four Americans still believe Bush has been doing a good job. But for many, many more, in the words of Gerald Ford as he replaced Nixon, a "long national nightmare" is finally over.
In his valedictory TV address on Thursday, Bush was smug and unapologetic. He seemed to be living in a separate universe, in which America had been made safe from terror, democracy had been established in Iraq and Afghanistan, Katrina had been a rescue operation for the ages, and the US had continued to grow and create jobs – at least until the recent spot of bother, which was no fault of his.
Indeed, in this sense, the global hopes pinned on this president-elect are a huge compliment to the US. Many have been disgusted by its recent policies; some have even written the place off. But the country is capable of astounding self-regeneration. And despite its imperfections – the obscene disparities in wealth, its inability to provide healthcare to 15 per cent of its citizens – America remains the great hope of humanity. What new Russian leader or new Chinese president, let alone a new EU president, could so enthuse us?
And just maybe, this is the season of miracles. No other word, surely, describes how every passenger survived when a US Airways plane came down in the icy Hudson River. A lost sense of national unity is making a miraculous return, inspired perhaps by that greatest of all Obama speeches, to the Democratic convention in 2004, when he said: "There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America – there's the United States of America." That theme too will run through his inaugural address, and in this magical moment people will believe him.
History's rhythms too are conspiring. Yesterday Obama and his vice-president elect, Joe Biden, took the same train trip from Philadelphia to Washington that his hero Abraham Lincoln, the man who saved the Union, took in 1861. Today the pair attend a spectacular "We Are One" concert in front of the Lincoln memorial, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the 16th President's birth. Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day, at which the arguably the greatest of all black Americans is remembered – a perfect curtain-raiser for the swearing-in 24 hours later of America's first black President.
Lincoln, of course, is not the only presidential shadow at this inauguration. Many invoke JFK, and his demand that Americans give as well as take: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." These past decades, every US advertisement has seemed to contain the words "you deserve". You may have to borrow half the value of your home to secure a product, but don't worry,
you are entitled to it. A Pew poll last week suggests that the notion of sacrifice, conspicuous by its absence under Ronald Reagan, the two Bushes and Bill Clinton, is back in vogue.
But the closest presidential parallel is Franklin Roosevelt, who took office at the height of an economic crisis even worse than this one: a jaunty figure who communicated boundless confidence to his countrymen, even if he sometimes privately lacked it. In this sense too, some see Obama as a man of destiny.
Big problems offer the chance of big solutions. The current huge public deficits, and the need for radical therapy to correct them once the immediate crisis has passed, provide an opportunity to tackle those ticking bombs of pensions and healthcare that, if unattended, might bankrupt the country a generation from now. If a president is going to ask for sacrifices for the common good – tax increases, say, to fund healthcare reform – now is the moment.
Today Americans yearn for great leadership as rarely before. Obama's approval rating of 75 per cent is unprecedented for a president-elect. A similar proportion, polls also report, are confident he can put the economy to rights..
Will we be disappointed? Probably. It is ridiculous that so much hope is placed on one person's shoulders. The problems are a familiar and depressing litany: the bloody, seemingly insoluble conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Iran's nuclear menace, unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorism, energy and water shortages, global warming, pollution – not to mention an economic crisis that is shaking the very foundations of American capitalism. All that is missing, you sometimes feel, is a giant asteroid hurtling towards Earth, threatening to destroy human civilisation. But in the irrational euphoria of this moment, who doubts that Superman Obama could deflect even that? Well, perhaps not, and the truth is that we do not expect him to solve every problem – certainly not at once.
That is one reason this President will be granted a long honeymoon. Another is that Obama, like JFK, makes Americans feel good about America. In an especially dark hour, he is a beacon of renewal. Of the conditions for human happiness, hope is the most important.
Some time in the small hours of 21 January, when the last celebrants leave the bars, reality will intrude. In the pale light of morning, more companies will fail. More jobs will be lost, and fresh billions will doubtless be wiped off share prices. Just one last official inaugural event will be left, a multi-faith service of prayer at Washington's National Cathedral, to be attended by the newly minted President and Vice-President. If ever an incoming leader needed the assembled gods of every religion at his side, it is Barack Obama. But then again, they say that theatre is the willing suspension of disbelief. He might be called "no-drama Obama". But never has political drama been more uplifting, and never have we been more willing to suspend our disbelief. Can he do it? Of course he can.
The journey to the White House
All aboard for the special rail service to Washington as it follows in the tracks of presidents past...
Barack Obama has consciously sought to don the mantle of Abraham Lincoln, and yesterday he re-created the 135-mile train journey his hero took from Philadelphia to Washington to be inaugurated.
There were a few differences. Lincoln's journey in 1861 from his home state to the capital took 12 days. Mr Obama's trip aboard a blue vintage rail car, accompanied by his family, 40 hand-picked "everyday Americans" and a smaller number of journalists, took nine hours.
As a precaution against terrorism, the US Coastguard banned shipping from the Delaware River and other waterways crossed by Mr Obama's train. Despite intense security, the aim was also to be seen: the inaugural train made several "slow rolls", giving the onlookers a chance to wave, and be waved at, by the incoming President and first family.
There were reminders of the economic crisis that awaits the 44th President as his train rolled past shuttered factories and scenes of urban decay, but aboard the private carriage, all was polished brass and hardwood, with luxurious leather seating. Built by Pullman in 1930 and used by presidents including George Bush Snr and Bill Clinton, it has a dining room and an observation platform. It was specially fitted with internet facilities for yesterday's trip.
The train stopped in Wilmington, Delaware, to pick up Joe Biden, the vice-president elect, and his family. As senator for the state, Mr Biden commuted to Washington by train for 30 years, and Gregg Weaver, the conductor of his regular train, was on hand to meet him yesterday.
Along the way, the special guests picked for the journey made appearances at public events to focus attention on his agenda. One was an Iraq war veteran determined to talk to Mr Obama about their favourite TV series, 'The Wire', as the train rolled through Baltimore districts where it was set.