After delivering a startlingly change-oriented inaugural address, President Barack Obama is finding out that change is possible but it is not easy.
Obama’s 2,396-word, new-era-of-responsibility speech, in the presence of 1.8 million mesmerized Americans and heard via television and the Internet by millions around the world, was a firm, fierce indictment of the policies of the past eight years.
He and Vice President Biden set out to try to convince skeptical citizens of other lands that the United States is reclaiming its claim of moral superiority by disavowing torture and reasserting its respect for human rights.
But it will take time.
Shutting down the American prison at Guantanamo, as Obama signed an executive order to do on his second full day in office, may take a year. There is enormous disagreement on where the more than 200 detainees should go. Obama appointed a panel to decide how to try terrorism suspects under the rule of law.
Proceeding with robust diplomacy with friends and enemies and engaging in sound development will take hard work, Hillary Clinton warned on her first day as secretary of state.
Vowing to give the president daily economic briefings, the White House economic team nonetheless acknowledged it is still searching for a rescue plan and financial stability package to prevent full-scale economic meltdown. Making sure change is positive is difficult.
The American people understand that things will get worse before they get better, said new White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
Traditionally, there is a 100-day honeymoon period for a new president. But, as Obama said, there are many crises to handle, and nobody knows how much leeway he will get. Change is a step into the unknown.
Gibbs also said, "The president believes we can change the way Washington works. He meant that partisanship will no longer impede action.”
But if he also meant the press would not be able to dog the president’s footsteps as much as they have in the past, he’s in for a fight. At Gibbs’ first press conference, reporters insisted transparency is vital and squabbled with him after being denied access to events that traditionally have been covered by the press. Not all change is good.
Gibbs said there have been strong bipartisan votes for Obamas priorities so far, including expanding children’s health insurance and confirming Hillary Clinton. But there is also a vow by Republicans to challenge the president on issues where they disagree, especially economic decisions. Change is controversial.
One early fight that Obama won was to keep his Blackberry for contact with senior aides and personal friends. It would have been a bad PR development if the most powerful man in the world had been forced to give up his Blackberry. Nonetheless, it took weeks to work out an arrangement, and the president had to agree that all his e-mails will be available to future historians according to law. Change comes with a price.
As happens whenever a new administration takes office, the new White House staff complained about the antiquated technology they found when they arrived for work. Change is hard even when the technology behind it is proven.
On his second day, showing he favors diplomacy over military force, Obama went to the State Department to announce his appointment of two long-time diplomats, Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell, as envoys to work on peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Middle East, respectively.
"There is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended,” said Mitchell. "I saw it happen in Northern Ireland, although, admittedly, it took a very long time. Change takes patience.”
The most moving aspect of Inauguration Day 2009 was the hope on the faces of those watching. The most inspiring was the universal smiling. The most daunting was the excitement. It would be tragic if they were misplaced.
"We have no time to lose,” said Obama as he settled into his new job, a job devoted to change.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)