Barack Obama faced an implausibly contradictory challenge in his inaugural address Tuesday. He needed to celebrate the historic magnificence of an African-American's becoming president of a nation once of African slaves. But then he had to tell everyone sternly that, uplifting as that was, this same great country faced deep, ominous and largely self-inflicted trouble economically, not to mention diminishment in world reputation.
As he spoke, financial experts were saying that banks were in even more trouble than we'd known, that the bottom hadn't yet been seen and that we might find that frenzied government spending on bailouts would not be enough. That could mean out-of-control inflation and, well, calamity.
You saw a metaphor for the country if you looked over at Dick Cheney in that wheelchair.
So here's what Obama said: Be happy, but do worry. He chose to let the historic occasion and racial essence speak for themselves. He confined his racial references pretty much to taking note of his becoming president in a town that, 60 years ago, might have denied his father a seat at a restaurant.
Otherwise, Obama simply let his skin color be self-evident. The crowd of wholly unprecedented size and joy knew why it was there and needed no reminding. The revelry needed no fuel. Its tank was full. Obama emphasized instead the dire circumstance and challenge, speaking as if he were any other president facing a real crisis. That's because his job now will be to govern not as the first black president, but as everyone's president.
Beyond that, he indeed seems to convey much of that post-racial essence that people sometimes talk about. He's surely proud to be the first African-American president and he does not in any way seek to understate or fail to appreciate the inhumanities heaped on those of his color who came before him. But he's different in subtle ways from Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and Andrew Young and Julian Bond, and it's not that he had a white mother. It's that he's something new -- younger, for the main thing, only a little boy when inner cities burned in racial turmoil in the late 1960s.
It's also becoming more evident every day that Obama is a pragmatic centrist, not an ideologue or strict partisan. Perhaps that's partly generational as well. Unlike Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, he escaped having himself defined and his ideas ingrained by the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam movement and the raging culture wars of the late 1960s.
Obama went to dinner with conservative columnists and impressed them that he was more interested in what worked than which static partisan bias prevailed. He wanted a conservative preacher to pray at his inaugural. The day before his inauguration, he served as host of three dinners celebrating famously bipartisan persons he admired. One was his own vice president, Joe Biden. Another was Colin Powell. The third? Only the Republican presidential candidate whom he vanquished, John McCain.
So he becomes that rare president who, owing to generational change and uncommon challenges, legitimately has a chance to change the political realignment. By that I mean that it is entirely possible that, by the time he ends his presidency, the words "liberal" and "conservative," even "Democratic" and "Republican," will connote different things from what they have meant for the last two or three uncommonly divisive decades.
All he needs to do is succeed.
Obama already is the historic first African-American president. That was done in November, probably early October, actually. And it's undeniably monumental. But now he seems to have in mind aiming to be a great president by deed on top of an historic president by color. He told The Washington Post editorial board that he intends to "go big." He doesn't really have any choice there.
John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. Send e-mail to jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.