Rarely in the history of our republic has a president taken office with higher expectations and more daunting challenges.

Polls on the eve of his inauguration showed that by wide margins most Americans believe that within the year under Barack Obama, the economy would improve, unemployment would drop and their own personal financial situation would get better.

Millions believe that our first African-American president will ease if not eliminate altogether race as a divisive force in our society.

Overseas, the expectations are almost as high — that the United States will forsake the swaggering ways of the Bush presidency and instead act as a uniting, stabilizing force in world politics. Rarely indeed has an American president been the recipient of so much international good will. Since Election Day, Nov. 4, Obama has literally been the most famous person in the world.

Without serving a day, Obama has been compared to two of America’s greatest presidents — Franklin Roosevelt, for the difficult economic times in which he takes office; and Abraham Lincoln, for progress on race and their Illinois origins, a comparison Obama has encouraged.

Social Washington expects Obama and his beautiful wife to bring fashion, style, glamour and parties back to the White House after eight uptight years of a president who rarely went out and turned in early. Everyday Washington hopes that Barack and Michelle Obama are of the city, not holed up in the White House, eating out, attending school functions, taking advantage of the cultural attractions, maybe even catching its hapless sports teams.

The euphoria and exuberance of the people in the capital recall such landmark inaugurations as John Kennedy in 1961 and Ronald Reagan in 1981, but these crowds are younger, more diverse, not to mention much larger, and convinced that they have seen history made. Obama has been compared to a rock star for the adulation he inspires. His followers would differ: He’s bigger than that.

Obama’s popularity has enabled him to roll over political problems that at any other time would be unsettling, even crippling, to a new president — Cabinet nominees with tax problems, complicity in suspect presidential pardons, a long history of earmarks, potential involvement in a pay-to-play scandal.

It will not last; it never does. But this country is all about reinventing and renewing. "Anything is possible in America," he said at the Lincoln Memorial, and for one day it was.