Obama’s view an ode to America’s promise

By Ron Fournier

WASHINGTON – When Barack Obama mounts the podium to take the oath and deliver his inaugural address – when he looks out upon the National Mall and hundreds of thousands of bright and hopeful faces – he will see so much more: the symbols of a nation forever struggling to live up to its promise.

Start first with that memorial to the first president, the 555-foot Washington Monument. In his first inaugural address, George Washington famously called the United States a great experiment in democracy – a nod to the Founders’ belief that this was a work in progress. The preamble to the U.S. Constitution sets the nation’s sights on “a more perfect union.”

Imperfect, indeed. That same Constitution counted slaves as three-fifths of a person in considering apportionment for the U.S. House. And many of the Founders, including Washington himself, owned slaves.

“In this sense, our nation is still an experiment,” said historian Paul Boller, author of a book on presidential inaugurations. “In other words, we haven’t reached a level of perfection, but we have grown.”

Symbols of that growth litter the District of Columbia landscape. From Obama’s perch at the west end of the Capitol, the new president will see steel-and-stone reminders of how the United States has evolved in good times and bad – through wars, recessions and the sort of wrenching social change we endure today.

There, directly in Obama’s line of sight, is the World War II Memorial – a monument as much to the so-called Greatest Generation as to the war itself, a testament to how America rebounded from the Great Depression to build a mighty middle class and win the Cold War.

A bit farther west, hidden by a thicket of trees, lies the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Not since FDR has a president entered the Oval Office with so many pressing worries.

In his first inaugural address, Roosevelt sought a veritable blank check from Congress to respond to the Great Depression. “I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis – broad executive power to wage war against the emergency as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe,” Roosevelt said.

With speed that Roosevelt would envy, Congress is on its way to giving Obama such power – a $350 billion infusion of bailout cash is already in hand, and an $825 billion stimulus package is on the fast track.

“Obama’s view will be more than just monuments because, to paraphrase (author William) Faulkner, history is not in the past. It’s still with us,” said historian John Baick of Western New England College in Springfield, Mass. “It will certainly be with us on Inauguration Day when we hear the echoes of the Civil War. When we hear echoes of the New Deal. When we hear echoes of slavery and civil rights.”

At the opposite end of the Mall from Obama stands the Lincoln Memorial – a “temple,” says its inscription, to honor the nation’s Great Emancipator. Carved in the chamber’s north wall is Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, the war’s-end call to heal the nation’s wounds “with malice toward none, with charity for all …”

Ron Fournier is Washington bureau chief for The Associated Press