And so here we are. We have lived to see the day when a black man becomes president of the United States. And he's not only that. He's intelligent and thoughtful, eloquent and interesting, compassionate and progressive. He's what we want for our sons and our daughters - not only a president to lead them to the future, but one who can show them all the possibilities in their lives. The Barack Obama story says: Read, listen, learn, get involved, get busy and make a difference. It's not what's handed to you but what you earn that defines you.
Education is the way out and the way up. Intelligence is cool. Eloquence inspires. Idealism is essential.
Public service is noble, and there might still be such a thing as politics without cynicism.
When was the last time a commander in chief was also role model in chief?
It's a lot to expect from a president - that he not only lead the great democracy but be a role model for the young people who crowd the generation just behind him. But that's what we appear to be getting today with Barack Obama, and that's why, on a personal level, so many Americans are excited about the new president. This is a two-fer.
Many of us had come to believe that the day of American greatness had passed, and that no one with any intelligence or brilliance would go into public service when there were fantastic personal fortunes to be made doing other things. Many of us still believe that a permanent political class runs the country, and that there's no way for "community organizers" to break through from the outside and change the self-interest aesthetic that dominates Washington. Running for office is not something many of us were suggesting to our kids.
But here we are. We have lived to see the day when a community organizer gets the highest office in the land, and public service looks like an admirable career choice again. While many of us had been turned off, millions had never even been turned on. On Saturday, in War Memorial Plaza in Baltimore, several people who had come to see Obama remarked that they had never been much interested in politics, never thought their engagement or vote made any difference. And many have been told for years that government is the problem, not a solution. One of our recent presidents famously said, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.' "
Once upon a time in this country, presidents spoke very differently. They believed in a progressive government that could serve and protect and stand vigilant against excesses that were ruinous to the economy and to the environment. They believed good government could lift Americans out of poverty and ignorance. They tempered the promise of good government with calls for citizens to do their part.
But it has been nearly 50 years since we heard a president at an inauguration say those empowering words: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
The Barack Obama story says that a great society requires the engagement of intelligent people working toward the common good. It says that power to all people, and not just to a power elite, forms the bedrock of a democracy. It says that, engineered by smart people, government can work to advance the society, even improve the quality of life for all Americans. The most powerful nation in the world can also be the most humane and decent.
A lot of us had come to believe that politics in this country was a big game between bitter rivals. We didn't debate, we bickered. We argued about everything, solved little. Many had come to believe that America was past its prime, bogged down in cynical talk-radio politics and strained by extreme ideological differences while huge problems mounted to insurmountable levels.
"Only a handful of times in our history has a generation been confronted with challenges so vast," Obama told the crowd that had gathered in Saturday's freeze here. "An economy that's faltering. Two wars, one that needs to be ended responsibly, one that needs to be waged wisely. A planet that's warming - although you can't tell today - from our unsustainable dependence on oil.
"And yet while our problems may be new, what is required to overcome them is not new. ... What's required is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives, our own hearts - from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry and narrow interests - an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels."
Two nights before Obama's train got to Baltimore, a couple of hundred event volunteers assembled at War Memorial Plaza to get their assignments from the Presidential Inaugural Committee. As the training sessions ended, a young man walked onto the stage in front of the War Memorial, went to the center, raised his arms, turned his face to the winter sky and yelled, "I'm standing where he will stand!" Dana Moore, a Baltimore attorney and PIC volunteer, was struck by the fellow's excitement.
"The young man who stood on the stage where Obama would stand was white," she noted in an e-mail to me later that night. "I don't have the words to convey that, as an African-American woman, it is striking to see not only the acceptance of a black man as president but also the admiration of him and the passion to claim a piece of him, his legacy, the path he will walk. It's transforming. Our country is getting a new president full of promise and hope."
So here we are. So bring it on.
Dan Rodricks is the host of "Midday" from noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday on 88.1 WYPR-FM.