Obama not writing on a clean slate

Phil Schurrer and Phil Schurrer

This week we inaugurate a new president, and we often finish that particular statement with the phrase “” and mark a new beginning.”

But that’s not entirely accurate. This nation is a work in progress – it’s still under construction. The journey began in 1776, and some would push the date back to 1620 or even 1492. We can debate its beginning, but there’s no evidence that we’ve completed the journey. We’re still on the road.

No president (not even George Washington) has written on a completely clean slate. The line of presidents that have followed him have added their contributions, both good and bad, to those previously inscribed on that slate. They have stood on the shoulders of their predecessors.

In some respects, our country’s events are neither linear nor predictable. Our nation continually evolves, changes and occasionally takes one step back before taking the two going forward. We’re certainly not perfect and we’re full of contradictions.

We fight a war against racist dictators and then spend millions reconstructing their nations so well that they become our economic competitors.

We fight a civil war against each other, spend more than a century in reconstruction – still unfinished in some respects – and some of the areas that suffered the worst of that war’s devastation have become centers of commerce and industry, governed in some cases by descendents of former slaves.

The Civil Rights movement’s greatest orator was a southern preacher whose ancestry included a father who was also a major figure in the movement. Arguably, one of that movement’s greatest accomplishments is the election of a black man as president who has no direct ancestral connection with the movement.

We have some of the best medical care in the world, but at a price that seems to be increasingly out of reach for most of our citizens and their employers. Our financial system has been the wellspring of untold wealth for millions, yet violated one of the most elementary rules of credit: don’t lend to those unlikely to repay.

We land humans on the moon, but fail to rebuild a major American city after a hurricane, and quibble whether, for insurance purposes, the damage was due to wind or to rain.

Barack Obama will become heir to this maze of contradictions we call America, just as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and the others have. His job will not be easy.

Ours is even more difficult. We have the task of judging a president’s actions and their consequences without the benefit of all the information that framed his decisions. While he deliberates constantly and in real time, our decisions are made once every four years.

He will find that life in the White House, the “gilded cage” that Harry Truman spoke of, is a very comfortable bubble, whose major downside is the isolation. He will find that very little will be easy, but the American people can be most forgiving of certain transgressions and yet intolerant and stern about others. Just ask Monica Lewinski or those who strapped the “Mission Accomplished” banner to the superstructure of a certain aircraft carrier.

He will stumble, fail, succeed and be misunderstood, just as we have and will. And when his term is ended, he will probably find that the best balm and tonic will be what Bush spoke of last week: the knowledge and certainty that he did his best.

So should we all.