Commentary: Obama faces high tide of expectations

After miles of walking, followed by hours of waiting in aching cold, the impatient witnesses to the historic event — a joyful multitude — were in place on the Mall.

The dignitaries had been introduced and seated. The Marine Corps band had played, and the boys' and girls' choruses had sung. The minister was about to deliver his invocation, to be followed by Miss Aretha Franklin's singing of "My Country,'Tis of Thee."

The excitement and expectation were electric.

In that moment, I could not help imagining the tumult of emotions that must surely have been churning inside the young man — younger-seeming even than his 47 years — who would shortly rise to deliver to that audience, to a wounded nation and to a waiting world, the most important 18-minute collection of words he'd likely ever speak.

Those words would set the tone for the coming years of his leadership and, in a real sense, present the goal, if not of a new world order, at least of a more civil and less dangerous one.

Besides the estimated 2 million present, 38 million of his American countrymen would be watching and listening on live television, millions more on webcasts, and a likely aggregate of several times that number in Canada, Latin America, Europe, Russia, Japan, Taiwan, the Middle East and even in China, though the version there would be tweaked by the censors.

Every phrase would be parsed. Every nuance could have consequences.

I cannot imagine that any individual — in any place or time — has ever addressed so immense an audience with so much at stake.

In that suspended moment before his name would be spoken, preceded for the first time by the title of President, I suspect — though it can't be known — that he may well have felt more than a little anxious, even a bit alone. Many of us would have.

But while some can be undone by such pressure, others — in the world of sport they're known as big-game players or "gamers" for short — rise to it. And it's evident this fresh young leader of our country and of the free world is one of those.

During the nearly two years of the interminable campaign, his political opponents and critics often derided Barack Obama's composed manner and elegant delivery, implying that he was all words.

But words matter — if they are true words and the right words, provided they are followed by principled action. With his early approval ratings at somewhere in the 70 to 80 percent range, plainly a majority in this country found his message inspiring.

The new president will be tested now. And, as he promised, so will we. But the large challenge before us has been clearly and fairly stated, and thus the difficult journey is well begun.