Inauguration means beginning.
And today's swearing in of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States formally begins his presid- ency.
But in fundamental ways, it's not a clean break from the past at all. And for that we should be profoundly thankful.
The seamless transition of power that's expected to take place today illustrates one of the remarkable strengths of our American democracy: After hard-fought campaigns by political parties dedicated to each other's defeat, a Republican president will quietly and willingly leave the job he's held for eight years, handing all its joys and burdens, its prestige and stresses, to the next duly elected leader.
It's a mechanism that has worked so smoothly for more than two centuries that it would be easy to take for granted.
But we mustn't forget how special it is, for that would diminish something truly worth celebrating. Warts, woes, inefficiencies and all, the American system of government works.
And the Obama presidency shows that it works in ways many people weren't ready to believe it could.
That the child of a white American mother and a black African father could win the U.S. presidency is testimony to the nation's progress toward being a society in which skin color isn't an artificial barrier to equal opportunity.
At his final news confer- ence last week, President Bush repeatedly wished Obama well and called him- self "fortunate to have a front- row seat on what is going to be an historic moment for the country.
Obama's election does speak volumes about how far this country has come when it comes to racial relations. ... And so I'm looking forward to it, really am. I think it's going to be -- it's going to be an amazing, amazing moment."
Obama will have the opportunity to make real his campaign message of hope for improvements in the areas where a great nation still falls short.
But he will face sobering, possibly overwhelming challenges.
The economy continues to teeter, while the country remains committed for now to two difficult, expensive wars. Americans are demanding that the federal government spend money to restore stability, but doing so will compound record deficits. Jobs, health care, education, Medicare, Social Security -- all need attention, sooner rather than later.
Some campaign ambitions will have to be postponed so that the new president and Congress can concentrate on the most important work they need to do and get it as right as possible.
And, of course, every pres- ident must be prepared for the unexpected, the unpre- dictable, the unthinkable events and trials that demand a change of course.
The last refrain of the last waltz from the last inaugural ball may not have faded be- fore Obama feels the weight on his shoulders.
In fact, he probably already has: The votes barely were counted in November when his extraordinarily organized transition team got about the business of preparing to govern during a daunting period in our history.
His attentiveness, tone and deliberation so far offer reason for optimism that the learning curve will be short, the action decisive, the focus sharp.
Though Bush's presidency became emblematic of divisiveness, he's conveyed, in his exit, an understanding of what it takes for our system to function -- and endure.
"I would hope that, frankly, for the sake of the system itself, that if people disagree with President-elect Obama, they treat him with respect," Bush said.
"There will be critics. And there should be. We all should welcome criticism on different policy -- it's the great thing about our demo- cracy; people have a chance to express themselves. I just hope the tone is respectful. He deserves it -- and so does the country."
And in that moment, let us not forget that beyond everything else Barack Obama is, he is only a man. He is one of us, and this is our journey, too.