WASHINGTON (AP) — When Barack Obama mounts the podium to take the oath and deliver his inaugural address, when he looks out upon the National Mall and hundreds of thousands of bright and hopeful faces, he will see so much more: the symbols of a nation forever struggling to live up to its promise.
Start first with that memorial to the first president, the 555-foot Washington Monument. In his first inaugural address, George Washington famously called the United States a great experiment in democracy — a nod to the Founders' belief that this was a work in progress. The preamble to the Constitution sets the nation's sights on "a more perfect union."
Imperfect, indeed. That same Constitution counted slaves as three-fifths a person in considering apportionment for the U.S. House. And many of the Founders, including Washington himself, owned slaves.
"In this sense, our nation is still an experiment," said historian Paul Boller, author of a book on presidential inaugurations. "In other words, we haven't reached a level of perfection but we have grown."
Symbols of that growth litter the District of Columbia landscape. From Obama's perch at the west end of the Capitol, the new president will see steel-and-stone reminders of how the United States has evolved in good times and bad — through wars, recessions and the sort of wrenching social change we endure today.
There, directly in Obama's line of sight, is the World War II Memorial — a monument as much to the so-called Greatest Generation as to the war itself, a testament to how America rebounded from the Great Depression to build a mighty middle class and win the Cold War.
A bit farther west, hidden by a thicket of trees, lies the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Not since FDR has a president entered the Oval Office with so many pressing worries.