Four months after his election and 10 days before his inauguration, Abraham Lincoln sneaked into Washington. From Springfield, Ill., Lincoln had traveled by train through the Midwest to New York and Philadelphia. To avoid a rumored assassination plot, he raced through Baltimore so he could reach Washington before dawn. “The president-elect arrived incog. at six this morning. I met him at the depot,” the future Secretary of State William H. Seward wrote his wife.
Unlike Lincoln, President-elect Barack Obama has not had the option of a four-month wait or an incognito arrival in the nation’s capital. His is a presidency with little or no transition. From the moment of Obama’s victory, his voice has been sought, his decisions have been forced, his leadership has been demanded—in Washington, across the nation and around the world—despite his plea that this nation has just one president.
This instant conversion from victor to de facto president results in part from the immediacy of the news cycle and communications. (By contrast, Lincoln’s inaugural message was transmitted by telegraph and pony express and didn’t reach California for two weeks.)
One day after this year’s election, Spc. Adam Wenger, 27, of Waterford, Mich., died in Tunnis, Iraq—the 4,190th U.S. casualty of that war. Two days later, three top auto executives visited Washington seeking $25 billion in federal assistance for their industry; a respected think tank projected a $1 trillion budget deficit this year; and the International Monetary Fund forecast that the economies of the world’s industrialized nations would shrink next year, for the first time since 1945. Three days later, the U.S. Labor Department reported that the nation’s unemployment rate had reached a 14-year high. Eight days later, U.S. policymakers again switched the strategy for reviving the national economy, and the stock market fell 411 points.
Shortly after noon on Jan. 20, Barack Obama will walk down the steps of the U.S. Capitol, which was constructed by slaves two centuries ago. He will gaze over the National Mall to the white marble memorial honoring Lincoln, who took office pleading for “a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people. Is there any better or equal hope in the world?”
In the time between Lincoln’s election victory and his inauguration in 1861, the United States had been reduced in size by nearly one-fourth, as eight of the 34 states seceded from the union, a prelude to the Civil War. In 2008, the United States is not in similar danger, but its global prestige and influence are in tatters, and it faces the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. The impact has been felt disproportionately by older Americans as household wealth has fallen, the stock market has declined nearly one-third, home values have dropped 20 percent and retirement savings have been reduced by some $2 trillion just since Jan. 1. States are balancing their budgets by cutting health care, education and transportation funds, and the nation’s businesses are shedding jobs and trimming pension obligations.
The accumulated problems pose a formidable challenge for America’s traditional optimism, but also an opportunity if the nation and its new leaders set aside bitter differences and reject the personal and ideological gridlock that has characterized Washington for a generation.
Dare we say it? “Yes we can.”