For one day, for one hour, let us take a bow as a country. Nearly 233 years after our founding, 144 years after the close of our Civil War and 46 years after Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, this crazy quilt of immigrants called Americans finally elected a black man, Barack Hussein Obama, as president.
Walking back from the inauguration, I saw a black street vendor wearing a home-stenciled T-shirt that pretty well captured the moment - and then some. It said: "Mission Accomplished."
But we cannot let this be the last mold we break, let alone the last big mission we accomplish. Now that we have overcome biography, we need to write some new history - one that will reboot, revive and reinvigorate America. That, for me, was the essence of Obama's inaugural speech, and I hope we - and he - are really up to it.
Indeed, dare I say, I hope Obama really has been palling around all these years with that old Chicago radical Bill Ayers. I hope Obama really is a closet radical.
Not radical left or right, just a radical, because this is a radical moment. It is a moment for radical departures from business as usual in so many areas. We can't thrive as a country any longer by coasting on our reputation, by postponing solutions to every big problem that might involve some pain and by telling ourselves that dramatic new initiatives - like a gasoline tax, national health care or banking reform - are too hard or "off the table." So my most fervent hope about Obama is that he will be as radical as this moment - that he will put everything on the table.
Opportunities for bold initiatives and truly new beginnings are rare in our system - in part because of the sheer inertia and stalemate designed into our Constitution, with its deliberate separation of powers, and in part because of the way lobbying money, a 24-hour news cycle and a permanent presidential campaign all conspire to paralyze big changes.
"The system is built for stalemate," said Michael J. Sandel, the Harvard University political theorist. "In ordinary times, the energy and dynamism of American life reside in the economy and society, and people view government with suspicion or indifference. But in times of national crisis, Americans look to government to solve fundamental problems that affect them directly. These are the times when presidents can do big things. These moments are rare. But they offer the occasion for the kind of leadership that can recast the political landscape, and redefine the terms of political argument for a generation."
In the 1930s, the Great Depression enabled Franklin D. Roosevelt to launch the New Deal and redefine the role of the federal government, he said, while in the 1960s, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and "the moral ferment of the civil rights movement" enabled Lyndon B. Johnson to enact his Great Society agenda, including Medicare, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
"These presidencies did more than enact new laws and programs," concluded Sandel. "They rewrote the social contract, and redefined what it means to be a citizen. Obama's moment, and his presidency, could be that consequential."
George W. Bush completely squandered his post-9/11 moment to summon the country to a dramatic new rebuilding at home. This has left us in some very deep holes. These holes - and the broad awareness that we are at the bottom of them - is what makes this a radical moment, calling for radical departures from business as usual, led by Washington.
That is why this voter is hoping Obama will swing for the fences. But he also has to remember to run the bases. George Bush swung for some fences, but he often failed at the most basic element of leadership - competent management and follow-through.
Obama will have to decide just how many fences he can swing for at one time: grand bargains on entitlement and immigration reform? A national health care system? A new clean-energy infrastructure? The nationalization and repair of our banking system? Will it be all or one? Some now and some later? It is too soon to say.
But I do know this: While a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, so too is a great politician, with a natural gift for oratory, a rare knack for bringing people together, and a nation, particularly its youth, ready to be summoned and to serve.
So, in sum, while it is impossible to exaggerate what a radical departure it is from our past that today we have inaugurated a black man as president, it is equally impossible to exaggerate how much our future depends on a radical departure from our present.
As Obama himself declared from the Capitol steps: "Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed."
We need to get back to work on our country and our planet in wholly new ways. The hour is late, the project couldn't be harder, the stakes couldn't be higher, the payoff couldn't be greater.
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 229 West 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.
© 2009 New York Times News Service