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A day to remember

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Obama's inaugural speech a 'defining moment' for the country

By Stephen Lega

Tuesday, Jan. 20, millions of people watched Barack Obama become the 44th President of the United States in person and on television.

Among those millions were the students of Corey Crume and David Hibbard. Both teach history at Marion County High School. Both agree that Obama's election last fall was a significant moment in American history.

And both said they intended to watch his inaugural speech.

"This is surely a defining moment for the United States," Crume said.

Obama's election is important, not only because he is the first African-American president in the nation's history, but also because of the circumstances he is facing as he begins his administration.

"Barack Obama's candidacy and his presidency will define the United States in the future even more distinctly than anybody since FDR or Abraham Lincoln," Crume said.

Obama succeeds Republican President George W. Bush, who exited office with an approval rating of 22 percent, according to the most recent CBS News/New York Times poll. Obama's election was an indicator that the American public was ready for a change, according to Hibbard.

"Obama is a symbol of hope," he said.

At the same time, Hibbard saw some similarities between Obama, a Democrat, and a few Republican presidents. Like Ronald Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt, Obama is a charismatic candidate, but there are differences as well.

"Obama was able to get people on the fringes, who never really cared about politics before. He was able to bring them in and even put them to work," Hibbard said. "Ronald Reagan had a lot of charisma. People liked him, but I don't know that he got a lot of fringe voters."

Obama received a great deal of media attention because he was the first African-American to be nominated as a major party candidate, and that in turn, generated interest among local high school students, according to Crume

"They [students] really started listening to the issues and being opinionated about the issues that were important," Crume said.

He added that students researched the views of Obama and his opponent, John McCain. After doing that, Crume also pointed out that the results of the mock election at the high school were similar to the results of the national election.

"The kids were pretty dead on who they voted into office and the issues they thought were going to be important in the election," he said.

The 2008 campaign wasn't historic just because of Obama's election. Former First Lady Hilary Clinton made history of her own as she became the first female Presidential candidate who had a realistic chance of winning the Democratic nomination.

Obama held on to win the nomination and the Presidency, but Hibbard believed Clinton would have won as well had she been the nominee.

The fact that the Democratic nomination came down to an African-American and a woman was another sign that voters were ready for change, according to Hibbard. Race and gender were peripheral issues in the minds of most voters, he said.

  Looking back, going forward  

Obama isn't the first African-American to seek the Presidency.

Ordained ministers Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton sought the Democratic nomination in earlier campaigns.

Crume said both of them were more polarizing than Obama. He suggested that may have been because Jackson and Sharpton's views were formed during the civil rights struggle.

"Barack Obama, he didn't really come from that era," Crume said.

Although the civil rights struggle paved the way for Obama's election, he came of age after major changes like  the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were enacted, Crume added.

According to Hibbard, Obama differed from Jackson, Sharpton and Alan Keyes (who sought the Republican nomination in previous years), in part, because each of the other three candidates held views that were not accepted by a majority of the voting public.

While Obama has been an inspiration to millions of Americans, he also has the attention of millions more around the world that are anxious to see how American policies will change under his administration.

"A lot of people from other countries are looking to Barack Obama for a model," Crume said. "A lot of people care about America's role in the world, not just Americans."

Crume added that Obama's election is precedent-setting for the country and internationally. Obama is the first black head of state in any Western democracy.

But does Obama's election mean that race is no longer an issue for American voters?

Crume and Hibbard both said that it depends, in part, on future African-American candidates and on how successful Obama is during his Presidency.

The national media also has reported heavily on the enthusiasm of Obama's supporters throughout the 2008 campaign.

Hibbard said that it would be hard for anyone to maintain the level of support and enthusiasm Obama enjoyed on the first day of his administration.

But that doesn't mean it's impossible.

"That's difficult for anybody to do," Hibbard said, "but I think he has that potential in him."