Obama: short ride, but long journey ahead



Bryan Kerns

Last Saturday, I found myself in something of a frenzy as Barack Obama took a train from Philadelphia to Washington to begin the celebration of his inauguration as the 44th President of the United States.

I was captivated by the coverage as the president was seen at the rear of the train waving to onlookers in Claymont, Del. His and Vice President Joe Biden’s journey through the heart of the industrial northeast in many ways tells the story of this country.

The ten-car train started in Philadelphia, where the nation was conceived in liberty, and continuing south to Delaware, where Biden was picked up, and then southwest to Baltimore, where Obama gave a speech, finally arriving at Washington’s Union Station. To get to Wilmington, Del., Obama’s train had to pass through incredibly depressed areas of Philadelphia and the inner suburbs of southern Delaware County where signs of industrial decay were apparent within eyesight of the train. As the train passed into Delaware, it met the Delaware River, the largest freshwater port in the United States, but where commercial traffic has been in marked decline.

Picking up Biden paints an especially interesting picture. The former Delaware senator took Amtrak to and from Washington every day, a much-ballyhooed fact used during the campaign to emphasize Biden’s working class roots.

Although political theater, there is also the important notion that Delaware has been greatly impacted by economic difficulties and outsourcing, having seen its auto plants and other industries shuttered. Additionally, much of the state’s southern half is agrarian and the furthest reaches of southern Delaware depend on tourism for economic well-being.

From Wilmington, the train continued into Maryland’s northwestern corner and then into Baltimore, perhaps the foremost example of the decline of the modern American city. Once an industrial juggernaut, much of the city is impoverished and suffers from an inadequate public education system. The city has a vibrant inner harbor as a successful tourist area and Johns Hopkins University and Hospital employ thousands of residents of the city. Nevertheless, the challenges of big city America remain.

It was a short trip from Baltimore to Washington, and the beginning of a new epoch in American history.

The high-profile Obama interregnum has drawn allowed comparisons to Lincoln, FDR, and JFK to fester in a way that may not behoove the newly-inaugurated president. He’s fighting against the legends of these past presidents in ways that simply do not compare.

Obama faces very different challenges. The country is not in the throes of depression, the South is not about to secede and mutually assured destruction isn’t likely a major topic at national security briefings. The country is struggling economically, is fighting two wars when it should only be fighting one, is lacking credibility abroad and is questioning its course in ways much different than anything we have seen before.

The problems Obama will encounter differ in magnitude, emphasis and context from those of his predecessors. He can’t use their solutions and he shouldn’t. Obama is very much on his own and there are only four living people who understand the burdens of that position. One is leaving office as a reviled figure. One is going to be the adjunct secretary of state. The other two are likely in the twilights of their post-presidencies. That is the sum total of the presidential experience upon which he can draw.

President Obama has been in office for just about 48 hours now. Only 35,016 hours remain. Good luck, sir. You’re going to need it.


Bryan Kerns is a sophomore honors and humanities major from Drexel Hill, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].