Historic inauguration ushers in era of expectation

With all the world’s eyes turned on Washington D.C., Obama’s inauguration will quickly move from symbolism to a series of reality checks.

On Tuesday, Obama will become the president of the United States for all the people, no matter their color or race.

“I hope President-elect Obama help fight terrorism in my homeland, because Pakistan is also a victim of terrorists,” said Foqia Ijaz, a project coordinator at the Gate City Health & Wellness.

“The best thing the next president can do for me is help me keep my job,” said Jorge Ramos, who works for two local restaurants.

“I hope the new administration does everything it can to help the poor and the immigrant communities,” said Paulo Pinto, executive director of Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers.

“Hope,” a word once filled with campaign symbolism, in times of crisis has been loaded with economic representation. The truth is, even for those who didn’t vote for Obama, his presidency might mean a chance that better days will come.

In fact, an Associated Press poll shows that 65 percent of Americans believe Obama will be an “above average” president or better, including 28 percent who think he will be “outstanding.”

But no group has higher expectations than black Americans, because no group has paid a higher price in social disparities to make this inauguration a reality.

So is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream complete now?

“It would be premature to say,” said Cliff Brown, an associate professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire.

For Brown, it has been only symbolically that Obama’s trajectory to the White House has shifted the country’s sense of what is possible. The sociologist says the significant racial disparities in wealth, income, housing, health, and education persist.

“The next step toward fulfilling Dr. King’s dream is to make meaningful progress toward eliminating these gaps, not just for the elite, but for citizens at every level of society,” he said.

In essence, the economic downturn materialized the sense of all the people – and not just Americans – that Obama’s presidency will have a global impact.

“The president takes the credit for sound economic policies but also takes the blame for any crisis,” said Dr. George Kaloudis, a professor who has taught political science at Rivier College for 22 years.

Kaloudis argued that a presidency is often shaped more by the circumstances than by moral principles. He recalled when President Bush vowed to pursue a “humble foreign policy.” But that was in a pre-9/11 world.

The professor, who is writing a book about the Greek diaspora in America, said that Obama represents a departure from a unilateralist approach – and that Europeans are enamored with him.

“President Bush had such contempt for the international organizations, such as the United Nations. The Europeans were looking forward for a change.”

But even in the U.S., Obama’s image wasn’t always spotless. When the Illinois senator first announced his candidacy, Dr. Kaloudis, who has specialized in transition of power, thought, “I’m not sure the U.S. was ready to elect a black president.”

And then the “elitist” allegations came: “For a period of time many Americans were suspicious of his eloquence. As if he was manipulative, complex, or even too professorial,” said Dr. Kaloudis.

But it was this kind of inclusive rhetoric that made regular Americans, who don’t have a vested interest in politics other than raising their families in times of prosperity, support Obama.

Folks like James McElroy, a father of two who’d rather see elected officials keep governments small.

“His willingness to consider other points of view and not see the world as black and white inspired me,” said McElroy, a product designer.

Obama was the first presidential candidate that McElroy felt excited about. His wife brought their 3-year-old and 6-year-old to Obama’s campaign headquarters to see how politics works.

What’s really grandiose about Tuesday’s inauguration is that no matter if you’re in Washington, Shanghai, or Rio de Janeiro, you have interest in U.S. success or failure.

Ask Foqia Ijaz, the Pakistani project coordinator, what word would best describe the next president and she’ll tell you: “confident.”

My choice: tolerance.

Because the same candidate who during the campaign shied away from a race relations discussion as a political platform will now carry the burden of the free world’s fate on his shoulders.

As Professor Brown says, “when race ceases to be a meaningful predictor of life chances – not just for prominent individuals, but for entire groups – then I think we can be confident that the promise of Dr. King’s dream has been fulfilled.”