Presidential inaugurations are in many ways the high-water marks of any presidency because they're so full of hope. All things seem possible. The rivalries and backbiting haven't set in yet, at least not publicly. Even the inevitable disappointments over Cabinet picks and White House staffing are tempered by the wide-eyed dreams of an ambitious agenda. Everyone -- or at least everyone who backed the guy -- has that "we can make this the best yearbook ever!" feeling.
Then comes the letdown. No, I don't mean Barack Obama will be a failed president. But even the most successful presidents bitterly disappoint some people, usually some of their biggest supporters. Indeed, they can only disappoint supporters because disappointment first requires confidence and hope. Those who voted against Obama can either have their low expectations fulfilled or be pleasantly surprised.
Many conservatives, for example, had hoped that George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" was simply a marketing slogan. They were dismayed to discover he really meant it. In the 1980s, Republican factions were deeply divided in the "let Reagan be Reagan" debates. Everyone heard what they wanted to hear during the campaign and expected the man's presidency to jibe perfectly with their expectations.
Obama's ideological compass is far more difficult to discern than Reagan's or Bush's were. This is why his conservative detractors often called him a cipher. Obama's supporters rolled their eyes despite producing often-contradictory evidence to rebut the charge.
This raises perhaps the most interesting question of the Obama presidency: "What wasn't Barack Obama lying about?"
I don't mean this to be as harsh as it sounds. I'm not talking about what his conservative critics said he was lying about -- say, the true nature of his relationship with William Ayers. I'm talking about issues where his own supporters seem to have just assumed he had his fingers crossed.
Consider, for example, the controversy swirling around pastor Rick Warren, invited to deliver the invocation at the inaugural. The choice is controversial because Warren, while something of a moderate in the evangelical world, is a blackhearted villain among gay-rights activists for his support of Proposition 8 in California, which successfully proscribed same-sex marriage.
The interesting thing is that throughout the campaign, Obama and Joe Biden took the exact same position as Warren on gay marriage. And yet, gays overwhelmingly supported Obama (and Democrats generally) but consider Warren a slap in the face of the first order. When you ask gay activists and liberal strategists about this sort of thing, their response might be: "It's OK because we know they're lying." They insist that when it's politically feasible, "Obama and the Democratic Party will be there for us."
That's one reason why the Warren appearance is so offensive to activists: It conjures the frightening possibility that Obama's election posturing wasn't posturing but rather (gasp!) his actual position.
Over the interminably long campaign, Obama's positions "evolved" to suit his political needs. This is hardly extraordinary. Pretty much every successful presidential candidate embarks on a similar ideological migration. Indeed, Obama's campaign was in some ways remarkable for how little he tacked to the right in the general election.
But it was also remarkable for how honest Obama could be about his dishonesty. When his past statements on NAFTA ("devastating" and "a big mistake") became inconvenient, he shrugged: "Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified." His own economic advisor, Austan Goolsbee, had already told Canadian officials not to worry about Obama's pledge to unilaterally "renegotiate" the North American Free Trade Agreement; it was all campaign boob-bait.
Some on the left are worried that Obama's previously staunch antiwar position was smoke and mirrors as well. Obama has retained Bush's secretary of Defense and has surrounded himself with supporters of the war, including his vice president and secretary of State.
On Israel, the left had good reason to believe Obama was their guy. One of Obama's closest friends is Rashid Khalidi, an unofficial Palestinian spokesman and left-wing academic. Early in the campaign, many perceived Obama to be taking a pro-Palestinian line when he said that "nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people." As the campaign wore on, he sounded increasingly pro-Israel, particularly during a hawkish speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. In July, during a visit to the Hamas-besieged city of Sderot, Obama told reporters, "If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that." And, he added, "I would expect Israelis to do the same thing." In short, Obama placated Israel supporters without alienating critics of Israel.
But that's precisely the sort of thing you can pull off when you're simply running for president, particularly when your eloquence is only outmatched by the willingness of your supporters and the media to accept whatever you need to say to get elected. But when you're actually the "decider," splitting the differences becomes much more difficult. That's why we have that saying: "To govern is to choose." It will be in his choices that we will know the man.
Goldberg is the author of "Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning" (Doubleday). Distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.