It's going to be a big couple of weeks for the guy on the penny.
On Feb. 12, the nation will celebrate the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln. A self-taught country lawyer from Illinois, he became president during the worst crisis in U.S. history, a split between north and south that threatened the nation‘s very existence. His steady hand led the country through a brutal four-year war that kept the Union whole, and he began efforts to heal its wounds before an assassin's bullet felled him.
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, aimed to end slavery in the rebellious Southern states, started the process of bringing black Americans into the country as citizens, righting a wrong that helped make the Declaration of Independence finally ring true four score and seven years later.
When the nation marks Honest Abe's bicentennial, it will do so with a new president. He, too, is a lawyer from Illinois. Tuesday at noon, he will put his left hand on Lincoln's Bible as he takes the oath of office.
If that parallel isn't irony enough, add this: The new leader of the free world is a black man whose ascent to the highest office in the land might not have been possible without the 16th president. Once inaugurated, he will ride down Pennsylvania Avenue and take residence in a White House built by slaves.
In U.S. history, 42 different men have served as president. Though of different backgrounds and political creeds, they all have one thing in common: All were white men. The idea that someone named Barack Hussein Obama, born in Hawaii to a Kansan mother and a Kenyan father, could join the Washingtons, Jeffersons, Jacksons and Roosevelts is the stuff of fiction.
And the truth is, we still barely know this fellow to whom we will hand the keys to the Oval Office. His time on the national stage has been shorter than that of some pop singers. Four years ago, he was a rookie senator whose speech at the Democratic Convention the summer before first landed him on anyone's political radar. Two years before that, he was a state legislator little known outside of Chicago.
Even many of his fawning admirers don't know that much about him, beyond what's posted on his Web site or documented in his three best-selling books. He remains a paradox at many levels: White and black, unique and ordinary, known and unknown. So much promise. And yet, so much mystery.
Again, just like Lincoln, himself a mysterious stranger from the West, his resume consisting of one term in the U.S. House, two failed Senate bids and a lot of speeches. Sound familiar?
Beyond Obama's strengths or weaknesses, aside from his policy initiatives and the economic crisis he inherits, the significance of his election cannot be overstated. Even if his term in office is unremarkable - hardly likely considering the challenges he faces at home and abroad - his presidency will serve as a defining moment.
When Obama raises his right hand and repeats the Constitutional oath, a part of our nation's bitter past will no longer exist in the present. A country that began by allowing slavery, then later condoned active discrimination of blacks, hasn't come full circle quite yet. But Tuesday's event will bring it closer than ever.
That explains the unrestrained expressions of joy we saw on Election Night. Witness this tableau from down the road: Hours after the decision was known, throngs of African-American students from Georgia State University gathered in the streets of Atlanta to celebrate. As TV crews filmed, their chants of "Obama! Obama!" gave way to a time-honored expression of patriotism: Shouts of "USA! USA! USA!"
We're used to seeing that at the Olympics or other venues where patriotic pride is commonplace. It's not the usual scene near a college campus, where many young people over the years have felt estranged from the nation's leadership establishment.
But on that night, these students loved their country like never before. Perhaps it was because, for the first time, they felt their country loved them back.
Not that all will celebrate equally. Americans remain divided in so many ways, by ideology, age, faith, gender and, yes, race. Nearly 60 million Americans didn't vote for Obama, and many of them won't throw a party this week. That likely includes more than few Georgians and Hall Countians, who backed his opponent by a 3-to-1 margin.
And political battles loom on the horizon. We brace for four years of partisan skirmishes, ugly rhetoric, victories and defeats. Obama will step on toes and make his share of mistakes. He will at times seem to be just another politician playing the angles, particularly when it's time to campaign for re-election. Even many of his admirers will be disappointed by him at some point.
This is natural. We put our leaders on a pedestal just to knock them down when they fail to scale the lofty heights we set for them. Only when they are new and untested do we adore them unconditionally, like a new car that hasn't been out on the highway yet. And Obama's pedestal is already higher than anyone's in recent memory.
And to be sure, Lincoln was no saint, even on slavery. As a politician, he was as shrewd and calculating as any in history (note that we don't build monuments to those who lack such skills). His abolition of slavery was too deliberate for some; his real goal wasn't racial equality but to keep the nation and the ideals it represents together amid its greatest threat. Without him, there may have been no United States left standing for Martin Luther King Jr. to challenge or for Obama to lead.
It shouldn't be that hard, therefore, for Americans to unite for just a little while and take in a moment that will be remembered for generations to come. Whenever we welcome a new leader, it is right that we pray together for his good judgment, his well being and his success, for his and ours are inextricably linked.
And as Obama repeats the Constitutional oath in front of the U.S. Capitol, beyond the hundreds of thousands there to watch, on the far end of the National Mall in Washington, Father Abraham will sit on his eternal marble throne, looking out over the nation he helped preserve at a moment his genius helped create.