Tuesday, January 20, 2009


With the departure of the Bush administration and the arrival of the Obama administration, today is a day for optimism. More than mere hope but less than certainty and well short of arrogance, optimism hangs in the air today in a way that I have never felt in my life. My comfortable default condition has always rested somewhere between cynicism and pessimism (often, especially in the last eight years, veering into despair), making it all too tempting to use this space today to point out the negatives of the current situation or to dwell on reasons for skepticism or worse. Days for doing so will come soon enough. (In my case, the first of those days will be this Thursday here on Dorf on Law.) But today is a day to smile and to breathe more freely than we have in a long, long time.

The optimism of today's transition of power emanates both from the knowledge that some very bad things will stop happening and the strong reason to believe that some very good things will begin to happen. Optimism flows as well from the knowledge that some of our worst fears have not come to pass. In this short post, I cannot try to offer an exhaustive list of these reasons to feel optimistic, so I will simply offer a few of the most basic reasons why one can feel such a palpable sense of optimism today.

I am optimistic because of the simple fact that we are witnessing a transition of power today. Before the 2004 election, people wondered openly whether the Bush crowd would even surrender power were they to lose at the polls. While there is still legitimate doubt about what happened during that election, the outcome in 2004 did not allow us to test whether or not an overtly corrupt administration would allow itself to be replaced and would turn over the power of the government to those with whom it disagrees. Yet with all of the levers of power firmly within its control, it did not (and perhaps was not able to) steal this election in favor of a friendly successor. It was quite plausible to imagine that this might never happen. It is happening. That is a cause for great optimism about the resilience of our constitutional system of government.

Not only did the worst administration in the nation's history walk away peacefully, but it is being replaced by an administration led by a man who is its opposite in too many ways to list. We are about to have a new president who believes in the importance of careful thought, who has dealt with both the powerful and the powerless with respect and compassion, who enjoys intellectual inquiry, who inspires hope rather than instilling and exploiting fear. The next president of this country is far from perfect, but he has a clear and deep belief in the importance of clear thinking and realistic assessment of the world as we find it. Even for someone like me whose doubts about what might happen next are acute, it is impossible not to feel that this is the kind of leader that we have always needed.

Finally, I am optimistic because of how normal this all feels. The enormity of this breakthrough in our long history of racial strife is both unbelievable yet somehow at the same time quite easy to believe. There was no so-called Bradley effect: Voters really did elect an outsider who does not look like the men in the portrait gallery. After the election was over, there was no buyers' remorse. If anything, more and more people seem to be coming to the realization that this was obviously a good choice. When changes in attitudes are this profound, how can we not feel optimistic that other changes long deferred might also soon be realized?

With optimism comes worry, of course. Optimism that we will see large changes in our approaches to foreign policy, economic policy, the administration of justice, and on and on raise the possibility -- if not the certainty -- that our optimism will soon lead to disappointment. If and when that happens, however, I will still be confident that there will be progress. There is much to be done, but for the first time in my lifetime there is good reason to feel genuinely optimistic. I hope that we all will enjoy this day and that this optimism will stay with us in the days and years ahead.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan


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