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U. reflects on the end of one era and the start of another

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

“Welcome to spring semester and American history,” Ted Widmer, director of the John Carter Brown library, told a full Salomon 101 Tuesday morning. “History is moving very much in the right direction today.”

As President Barack Obama prepared to take the oath of office in Washington, D.C., students and staff attended inauguration broadcasts in Salomon, Sayles Hall and the John Hay Library yesterday morning. In the afternoon, the celebratory tone on campus shifted toward reflection as two faculty panels addressed domestic and foreign policy challenges facing the Obama administration.

In the Salomon Center, the crowd left no doubt of their enthusiasm about the new president. A deafening silence fell over the crowd when then-President George Bush emerged from the Capitol, but some applauded CNN Anchor Wolf Blitzer’s comment that Bush’s entrance marked the last time “Hail to the Chief” would be played for the 43rd president. In contrast, students cheered for the day’s first shot of Obama.

The crowd erupted again at noon when Blitzer announced the official transfer of power, which occurred during an ensemble music performance for Obama.

The new President received no fewer than three standing ovations from students in Salomon: when he was first introduced to the crowd, again at the request of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and once more after his address to the nation.

Widmer, who is also a presidential historian, told the crowd that Obama channeled President Abraham Lincoln in running a campaign “built on words” and in his command of language ­- “the oldest technology known to man.”

Elsewhere on campus, students reflected on the presidency at a Hay exhibit honoring Lincoln, whose bible was used in yesterday’s ceremonies. Highlights from the collection included a page of arithmetic from the young Lincoln’s composition book, a rare original copy of Lincoln’s 1865 inaugural address and a Civil War-era “Meditation on the Divine Will” composed in Lincoln’s hand and saved by John Hay.

Back in Salomon, the celebration gave way to discussion at two faculty panels in Salomon 001 Tuesday afternoon. Moderator Christopher Lydon, a visiting fellow in international studies, noted the irony of “rejoicing” even as “banks are collapsing” as he introduced a panel on “Foreign Policy Challenges and Opportunities.” Lydon said the optimism in a country laden with problems made Tuesday “one crazy moment” in history.

Sporting an Obama t-shirt under his jacket, Professor of International Studies James Blight made no effort to conceal his loyalty to the new president. Blight said he was glad his fashion statement now carried a “patriotic” message instead of a “political” one.

But Blight also called the tone of Obama’s speech “somber” and compared the challenges facing his administration to those confronted by President John F. Kennedy. Like Kennedy, Obama will need “a spine made out of steel” to lead the nation, Blight said.

Other panelists looked to more recent history as they expressed their hopes and concerns for the new President. Former U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee ’75, a distinguished visiting fellow in international studies, said he recalled how he trusted Bush’s promises to be “a uniter, not a divider” and build a sustainable Middle East peace plan. He said he hopes Obama will fulfill his promises to repair U.S. relations with the Muslim world.

Professor of International Studies James Der Derian said he was surprised to be mentioned in Obama’s address, which referred to “nonbelievers” – like Der Derian – as citizens of the nation. Barbara Stallings, who is also a professor of international studies, said she hoped conversations in the next four years could be expanded to other groups typically excluded from political conversations – especially people in developing countries. Stallings said Obama had “moral” and “practical” reasons to “get development onto the agenda.”

Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Corey Walker said he hoped the day’s events would usher in “a new generation in foreign policy interest and influence.” But he said he was surprised by the “acceptable level of U.S. nationalism” in the inauguration events and expressed concerns that the rhetoric of the inauguration ceremony amounted to “a U.S. claim to power.” Specifically, he said he was perturbed by Obama’s declaration that the U.S. was “not going to apologize for our way of life.”

Walker identified a need for a “new model” for American foreign policy that included voices outside the traditional foreign policy structure. Marginalized populations were also a theme of the afternoon’s second faculty panel, which convened at 3 p.m. to discuss domestic issues.

Professor of Education Cynthia Garcia Coll said the “broken” education system in America would be a major challenge for the new president. Coll added that the nation’s achievement gap is closely linked to class divisions and that improving schools would be a way for the administration to address poverty.

Millions of Americans with inadequate health care were the subject of Professor of Family Medicine Stephen Smith’s discussion of Obama’s health care plan. Smith called Obama’s plan “a step forward” but added that “it will not bring universal health care to the U.S.”

Assistant Professor of Political Science Jennifer Lawless, who moderated the panel, tied many of the concerns back to the nation’s weak economy, saying Obama “must spend huge money” to implement new domestic programs.

Still, Lawless, who referred to herself as “a ‘Glass is completely empty’ person,” saw reasons to be optimistic about the new president. Lawless said Americans “might see real change” in gay rights over the next four years, including a rescinding of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding homosexuality. This would carry “important symbolism,” she said, just as the Obama presidency “sends the signal both to African Americans and to women that the political system is inclusive.”

That’s a message that “transcends any one policy,” Lawless said.

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