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Yes We Can Dare to Hope ... But We'll Need to Work Hard to Bring Real Change

Obama has the ability to do a lot of good as long as we reject the temptation of feeling hopeless and cynical.

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Indeed, the only emotion that came close to the excitement of seeing Obama come to office was seeing George W. Bush leaving office. 

Soon after the end of the swearing-in ceremony, as the now ex-president lifted off in his helicopter from the Capitol grounds for Andrews Air Force Base to take the jet that would take him back home to Texas, hundreds of thousands of people on the mall started waving at the helicopter and joyously singing: "Nah-nah-nah-nah, nah-nah-nah-nah, hey hey hey, goodbye!"   

While Bush's departure alone is cause for celebration, Obama appears committed to not just ending some of the worst policies of the previous administration, but to forge ahead with new and better policies. 

A couple hours after the inauguration ceremony, I got a call on my cell phone from my eldest child Shanti from Bellingham, Wash., where she is a student in Western Washington University's community health program and serves as the assistant coordinator of the university's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Alliance.

As someone who had been rather skeptical of Obama (and had voted for Green Party nominee Cynthia McKinney in November), she was shedding tears of relief and amazement reading the new White House Web site's section on "Support for the LGBT Community." This often-critical observer of the political process was sharing her excitement as to how the United States now has an administration committed to supporting full civil unions, opposing bans on same-sex marriages, expanding adoption rights, promoting sex education and HIV-prevention efforts beyond the failed abstinence-only policies of the recent administration, as well as ending workplace discrimination for sexual orientation and gender identity. 

This dramatic policy shift serves to illustrate the fact that, while many of Obama's policies will disappoint, frustrate and anger many of us in the progressive movement, we should not fail to recognize that there will be some fundamental differences in the policies of the federal government on many levels; that, given the power of the American presidency, even minor differences in policies can have a positive impact on millions of lives and that while there are certain institutional imperatives that will inevitably limit the degree to which even the most enlightened administration can bring about a shift in priorities, this does not obscure the fact that, in terms of public policy, we are witnessing the most dramatic change in American leadership since Franklin D. Roosevelt succeeded Herbert Hoover in 1933.

Our Foot in the Door 

Tuesday evening, I joined hundreds of veteran activists gathered in the Smithsonian Postal Museum for the Inaugural Peace Ball. Hanging out in gowns and tuxedos with such progressive luminaries as Amy Goodman, Holly Near, Michael Lerner, Medea Benjamin, Harry Belafonte, Kevin Danaher, John Cavanaugh and others, there was a clear sense that it was a time to celebrate a historic achievement. It was remarkable to be among so many people well to the left of the Democratic Party -- and, in many cases, to the left of me -- who were nevertheless incredibly excited at what has transpired. 

Obama's centrist proclivities notwithstanding, his message has been clear from the beginning: "It's not about me," he said again and again, "it's about you."  As someone whose political rise in Chicago came not from the slimy politics of that city's political machine but from his grassroots constituency who got to know him as a community organizer, he recognizes where real power comes from.  And there is no question that his political base nationally is to his left -- at least as articulated in many of the positions he took as a presidential candidate -- and that he will therefore need to be responsive to that base. 

 
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