As President Barack Obama sets off on his second-term journey, we wish him well.
In the weeklong "Road Forward" series that ends today on Inauguration Day, we've laid out the many challenges he faces to fulfill the promise of his presidency.
We reminded him -- and ourselves -- that too much poverty and economic inequality remains; that too little progress on education, the environment and immigration has been made; that too many middle-class Americans are falling farther behind; that new laws are needed to translate into better health care and sound business regulation; that common sense is missing from our national budget; and that too much confusion plagues our ever-evolving foreign and defense policies.
But today we stand back, sit quietly (in the cold, if you are on the National Mall) and appreciate this president and the country he and his office represent.
The fact is, most of us rather like and trust Barack Obama, at least more than anyone else in politics. He's aloof but steady. He seems to be getting wiser, not just grayer. He wears well as a constant public presence -- or has so far. If he's done less than critics want, he's done more than his foes admit.
History may boost his grades for what he's already accomplished. The top achievement: surfacing and symbolizing a multi-ethnic, multicultural and multiracial America fitted demographically to lead the world.
For perspective I called on two friends and former colleagues, Jon Meacham and Arthur Grace.
Meacham, the editor of Random House and my former boss at Newsweek, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who's written about three Democrats who also won at least two terms: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson. Grace, one of the best photographers of American public life we have, has published a new collection of his pictures, political and otherwise, appropriately titled America 101.
According to Meacham, Obama deserves more credit than he's gotten. Even "had the president lost reelection, he would be strongly positioned for a generous historical reputation," Meacham said. He will get higher marks as commander-in-chief. "For killing Bin Laden and presiding over the end of the war in Iraq, he has a strong case to make on foreign policy grounds."
And Meacham says that we undervalue the president's bold moves and steady hand in his first year as president, when he helped to prevent the Great Recession from collapsing into a worldwide second Great Depression. There are those who think that Obama did not and has not done enough to spur growth, but avoiding catastrophe has historical merit.
"Domestically, 'prevention' counts more in the eyes of historians than it often does with present voters," Meacham said. "So 2009 is also ripe for a warm retrospective treatment."
Ironically but justifiably, winning a second term raises the stakes. "Expectations are higher," said Meacham.
Meacham sees the president's biggest challenge as reconciling the fast-rising costs of caring for the aging Baby Boomers with a need to keep our country solvent for future generations. In the view of our reporters at The Huffington Post, it's eminently feasible -- but Obama has to get it done.
"With the exception of a cataclysmic overseas or homeland crisis," Meacham concludes, "this question of putting the country on a sensible budget footing will probably determine how the future judges his second term."
Yet we have faced bigger problems before, and have surmounted periods of angrier strife with decency, determination and doses of flag-waving patriotism.
That is the message of Grace's black-and-white photographs, the work of his long career covering elections, court-ordered busing in the 1970s and other solemn, revealing moments in the street life of our continental country. Below, a slide show of his pictures serves as a coda to the "Road Forward" series.
In 1975, as a cub reporter, I covered the launch of court-ordered busing that integrated the schools in Louisville, Ky., and its suburbs. There was some violence, and the community was torn apart. Blacks and whites, thrown together by a federal court, were frightened, resentful and distraught. We seemed to be falling apart as a city and country.
Of course we didn't then, and we won't now. And there is no better proof of our resilience than the Inauguration we celebrate, the man who is placing his hand on the Bible, or the flag we raise in praise of a nation of, by and for the people.
All photographs copyright ©2012 Arthur Grace from the new book America 101 (Fall Line Press)
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