Last Tuesday, for the 22nd time in 220 years, Americans saw the peaceful post-election transfer of power from one political party to another. In our great outdoor national ceremony, scheduled for some reason on a day that is as likely as any other to be the coldest of the year, Barack Obama took the oath as our 44thth president and spoke to the nation for 19 minutes in a speech that was far more somber than the mood of the crowd of 2 million on the Mall.
At least one thing he got wrong. He spoke of "a sapping of confidence -- a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights." But a few hours before Obama spoke, pollster Scott Rasmussen reported that 48 percent of Americans believe the nation's best days are yet to come, while only 35 percent say they have come and gone.
Some of that optimistic plurality may come from voters convinced the nation was declining so long as George W. Bush was president but confident that it will rebound now that Obama is. Americans may be pessimistic about the next year, but we tend to be confident there will be progress over the next decade and the next generation.
But I think Americans will forgive Obama for striking a somber note; I think they're in a mood to forgive him for almost anything. The response to Obama since his victory in November reminds me of the response to John F. Kennedy after his narrower victory in 1960.
There are many similarities between the two. Obama is the first African-American president; Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic president. Both entered office young, physically graceful, articulate, charming. And both came to office at difficult times. Obama must make decisions about wars and a financial crisis no one fully comprehends. And, though many forget this, Kennedy faced difficult decisions: an economy that seemed to be faltering, which he pledged to get moving again, and a Cold War that had heated up in a Berlin crisis -- and would again -- and that nearly became hot when the Soviets placed missiles in Cuba.
Kennedy proved to be an extraordinarily popular president. His job approval ratings started off near 70 percent and stayed around that for his entire presidency, except that he lost the support of white Southerners after he came out for the civil rights bill in June 1963. His ratings remained high even after his first major and highly visible mistake, the Bay of Pigs invasion.
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