THE WINDS were cold at the Capitol yesterday, as President Obama spoke of "the winter of our hardship." But the sun lit his face.
The somber tone of Obama's inaugural address contrasted with the celebratory mood of the immense crowds who came to be part of the historic moment, cheering lustily every time the new president's image appeared on the big screens scattered about the National Mall. It is Obama's task now to steer the country from cathartic joy to a steely determination to set things right, and he went about that with seriousness from the start. "The time has come to set aside childish things," he said, quoting Scripture.
Obama left no doubt that his will be an administration that asks for true sacrifice, though its precise nature is yet unclear - at least for people who still have jobs. But he also exhorted Americans to seize those challenges gladly, with faith that the most implacable obstacles can be moved with enough shared effort. When he said "We have chosen hope over fear," cries of "Amen!" rang through the crowd.
All weekend Washingon has been aglow, almost giddy with anticipation. Crowds bundled against the cold wandered around the Capitol and on the mall, taking pictures and getting as close as security barriers would allow. Enterprising vendors sold everything from Obama hats and hand puppets to golf balls with the inaugural seal. A car was nosing through the throngs at one intersection when the window lowered and a woman shouted out, "What time is it? It's Obama time!" As people laughed, another woman answered with conviction. "It's our time," she said.
The special meaning of Obama's election for African-Americans was hard to miss. On the Metro, an older black woman spoke to a stranger about growing up in segregated Washington. If you were anywhere downtown, she said, visiting the Smithsonian, for example, there were no bathrooms for blacks. Sometimes finding one required a bus ride across town. It was her own lived history, but she said it with a kind of wonder, as if such an America could exist in the same lifespan as the prospect of this handsome, easeful young black man taking the oath.
The promise of Obama's candidacy was always a new kind of politics, more decentralized and engaged. We hope he can harness that power to usher in a new era of responsibility - not just personal or institutional but also in the sense of taking responsibility for one's neighbors, on the block and around the world.
Obama spoke yesterday of duty, hard choices, and sacrifice. But the poet Elizabeth Alexander who helped close the ceremonies had it right: the most powerful word was love.