In the National Museum of American History, the repository of this country’s past, the curators are not waiting for the inauguration of Barack Obama on Jan. 20.
They have already entered his name and face in its gallery of presidents, a permanent exhibition subtitled “A Glorious Burden.” There he is, the smiling 44th president of the United States, the last in a glorious — or inglorious — line stretching from George Washington to George W. Bush.
There is that sense of anticipation in Washington, the imperial city seized with Obamania. It is as if the torch has already been passed; in stores and restaurants of F Street, it is all Obama, all of the time.
In the boutique of the Smithsonian Institution — in America they find the money to tell their story in a national history museum and a national portrait gallery — a clutch of new biographies of Mr. Obama are for sale.
A block from the White House, a large souvenir shop offers nothing but Obama memorabilia. Visitors are greeted by life-size cut-outs of the man and a replica of the majestic desk that once belonged in the Oval Office of John F. Kennedy (from which his toddler, John Jr., was famously photographed peeking out from a front panel. Now, in doctored images, Mr. Obama’s daughters are peeking out.)
The president-elect’s face is everywhere — on buttons, cuff links, pens, hot sauce, bookmarks, pins, golf balls, champagne glasses, dish towels, paperweights, T-shirts. This week newspapers are running stories of Mr. Obama vacationing in Hawaii. They report breathlessly he has a great torso.
It is all very silly, but it shows the prominence of the president in politics, and in the zeitgeist, too. As singer Andy Kim once said of Richard Nixon, “he’s everybody’s daddy for awhile.”
Then again, for a country enfeebled at home and encumbered abroad, facing epochal challenges, the prospect of change is a tonic for an ailing soul.
Inaugurations have long been occasions in America, which is always interested in the next new thing. They are a celebration of democracy as much as an affirmation of partisanship, which is why there is that parade, which goes on for hours, followed by all those extravagant balls.
With that comes the usual commercialism, which has been around since Washington took the oath of office in 1789. To inaugurate is to commemorate. To commemorate is to sell. No one sells better than Americans.
The inscriptions on all those faux medallions do not say that Barack Obama was the first president born outside the 48 states or that he is the first sitting senator to take office since JFK. It is that Barack Obama is the first black American elected president. It will be the first line of his obituary. The second line, though, will say what he did with it.
The worse things get, the greater the expectations of the new president. His popularity will never be greater than it is today, as he will learn when the parade ends and cheers fade on Jan. 20.
He has been dealt a difficult hand, his burden is great, and it won’t always be glorious.
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