We arrived in Washington, D.C., more than two days before the Inauguration of new President Barack Obama, and I thought we had stepped into a Ray Bradbury novel.
Washington was a police state. The red-blue flashes of sirens continually lit the streets and yellow blockades stood at every corner. Police officers watched the growing numbers of tourists warily with their hands on their hilts. Helicopters flew overhead, washing spotlights over the buildings of Chinatown and K Street.
And, true to totalitarian form, the face of a national leader littered the city.
It was Obama’s face in Washington, but the T-shirts, posters and water bottles (yes, water bottles) depicting Obama’s profile called to mind Stalin’s face in Moscow or Mao’s face in Beijing. People called his name in the streets and businesses posted his heroic pictures in their windows. Residents and visitors in the District get excited about every appearance or utterance:
It is a fashion statement more than it is a name. Of the estimated two million visitors to the National Mall today, easily half wore thick Obama beanies. Another fourth donned some other presidential paraphernalia. Vendors sell Obama gear in the streets by the carload. The United States’ 44th President has become, at least during this brief hysteria in Washington, an idol.
Exciting as it is, I cannot help but wonder how Obama’s chic image and trend-like popularity will affect the American public’s perception of the man in office. It was clear from his reception by the Inauguration crowd that the people expect a savior with the face of a model and the persona of a rock star. The public looks to him for deliverance from the economic difficulties, political partisanship and social division that we have faced in the past few years.
These are lofty expectations, and ones that Obama may not be fully equipped to meet.
Not that Obama ever claimed to be a savior. Throughout his campaign, in his election night speech and in his stirring speech today, Obama has emphasized the importance of public responsibility and civic duty. For all that the government can and should do, he says, American citizens need to take ownership of their country. His refreshing message could not come at a more important time.
Nonetheless, I worry that this message will be lost in the roadside pamphlets and bobbling figurines that claim Obama as America’s liberator. I voted for Obama because I believe he can rejuvenate America’s patriotic spirit, but I have never seen the obstacles to this revival as clearly as I do in Washington these past few days.
So, as the peddlers and tourists leave, litter is cleaned from the grass of the Mall and this city returns to the dull roar to which it is accustomed, we may finally have a chance to see Obama’s real promise – beyond the hype.
This blog is cross-posted at James Spung's personal blog and the Spokesman Review's Inauguration coverage.