03/14/2007 10:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can Obama the Man Measure Up to Obama the Promise?

That's the big question. It's a tall order. That promise is global in scope and historic in depth. Obama could be the first candidate of world culture--the political analogue of world music and world cuisine, the ultimate expression of the ethos of fusion. It's a hell of a load to put on the shoulders of one flesh and blood person, especially one as young as he is, and even one as gifted.

But his performance at Selma gave me hope. It was near perfect. While poor Hillary was producing one of her cringe-inducing robo-simulations of concern (heartfelt, I am sure, but that's how it comes off), there was Barack wisely, oh so wisely, restraining himself stylistically. He didn't swing away. He didn't even try to compete with the ghost of Martin Luther King on this historic day. He was modest in his demeanor, and that was just right. He opted instead for substance. Not policy wonking, but sociological and cultural substance of the first importance.

On the one hand, he featured the Joshua Generation expressing it's profound debt to the Moses generation of the civil rights movement itself--simultaneously cementing his claim upon his elders and securing their permission to proceed in his own way, to get past the 60s and move on to tomorrow. That generational trope will play across the board, not just in the black community. That's the JFK piece.

On the other hand, he offered tough love to Cousin Pookie and Uncle Jethro, scolding them for their apathy and cynicism in a way no white politician--not even Bill--could possibly get away with. That theme might eventually bridge the gap between African-American voters and those working class Democrats who danced for so long to the patriot tunes of Reagan-Bush jingoism--while corporate bandits looted their wallets and their young people went off to war in service of imperial fantasies.

A synthesis of those themes, adapted to specific policy contexts--environment, health care, and all the rest--might just turn the tide. His selection of those themes in that all-important setting, in that really critical moment in the early stages of this marathon, gives me hope, however audacious, that Obama the man might rise to meet Obama the promise.

One thing's for sure. Nothing could do more, at a single stroke, to give this country a new beginning in this world after the catastrophic Bush years, than the Obama family in the White House. That would be epochal.