Inauguration Day is finally upon us. With the hopes, dreams, fears and occasional hostility of 300 million Americans riding atop his shoulders, Barack Obama's list of tasks seems almost impossible to check off: Fix the worst economic crisis since the Depression, secure our nation while calming the world's fear that we are a superpower without accountability, address our failing health care system, and stem the tide of climate change that threatens us all. And that's the just the start of it. It's as if Obama is an escape artist, and we keep wrapping locked chains around him, to test just how talented he is. 

Then there is that whole historic election angle. The topic of race was studiously avoided during the election itself, except for those on the fringes trying to exploit it. And yet, after the results were tallied, the enormity of an African-American president seemed to shock us all, but in a good way.

Obama's speech in Grant Park on election night became a national moment, akin to the lunar landing. Even those who voted against him seemed to appreciate its magnitude, and agreed that, at least symbolically, America had done a good thing.

So, let us take a moment, before the hard work of governing truly begins, to take a tour of those who live and work here in Champaign-Urbana, and ask: What sayest thou? What hopes and expectations do you have of an Obama administration, and what does this historic event mean to you personally?

A scattering of local perspectives are listed below. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments.

Artwork by John Jennings

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When he stands to be sworn in, we hope to be there, and to be part of history, so we might be able to inspire others to strive to such heights. Now we can say that yes, we can become president, and that is something good to pass along to our young people.

—Reverend Dr. Claude E. Shelby Sr., Salem Baptist Church

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Speaking as a scholar of the 1930s, I hope that one of the things an Obama administration does, as the Roosevelt administration did in fits and starts in the Depression, is to hitch economic recovery to the economic prospects of the poor and working class. Given enough time, the economy will grow again. But if the economy simply returns to how things were before this recession, with the degree of economic and political inequality that characterized the last few years if not decades, then it will be hard to celebrate the return to the status quo and judge the Obama administration a success. In other words, I hope that the Obama administration does not just oversee an economic recovery, but that the economy recovers because the poor and working class have new opportunities and better jobs. Judging from his campaign, his speeches, and his appointees since being elected, I believe that Obama cares deeply about these problems. But the question, as always, is whether there is the political will to do something about them. I hope so.

John Marsh, Assistant Director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, coordinator of The Odyssey Project (a year-long, college-level course in the humanities offered at no cost to people living below or slightly above the federal poverty level), and editor of You Work Tomorrow: An Anthology of American Labor Poetry, 1929-1941

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Barack Hussein Obama Jr. will take the helm as the 44th President of the United States of America on January 20, 2009. At a time when we need a President to be unique in leadership style, approach, and demeanor, we have had countless essays and opinion editorials written comparing President-Elect Obama to everyone from Abraham Lincoln to George H. W. Bush. The air of anticipation is rife with possibility and desperation. Obama's presidency comes at a time of crisis. Americans are vulnerable, perhaps as vulnerable as we were on September 11, 2001. Once again we are faced with anxiety about the stability of our nation. Major corporations are collapsing, hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost their jobs, their benefits, their homes, and some even their hope. And while some of us would like to believe Obama will become our savior, we only have one savior and that is God. Obama will likely spend the first term (and yes I am being presumptuous about a second term election) stabilizing the economy, refurbishing broken or abused policies, and restoring hope. The thing that enthuses me about Obama is his grassroots community organizing background, the sense of immediacy his call for change embodies, and the historical significance of his Presidency in a nation that has always had problems with race.

Obama's background in community organizing combined with his technological savvy and effective communication style helped him get elected, and these characteristics will sustain him for a while as he leads a nation that is starving to be heard and to be led by a competent, open-minded President. Not since Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy before him have we had a president so eagerly anticipated. The words that seem to remain unspoken is that the only thing that separates him from being the most beloved leader in U.S. history is the time to prove he can lead us out of crisis; and even still there are a few Americans who believe his race will stunt how he is received. After all, no President has ever had to worry about his race or color of his skin being a factor in his approval by the American populace. The flip side of this is that we have elected Barack Obama as our President and if the majority of the voters felt confident enough to elect him, then as citizens of a democracy we all owe him the chance to exercise his sound decision-making, effective international diplomacy, domestic political savvy, and strong vision of change we can believe in.

Ronald L. Jackson II, Professor of media studies and African American studies, and Associate Dean of Research and Faculty Development in the college of media, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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I think President Obama's election is the culmination of years of struggle in the civil rights movement. His election does represent the hopes and dreams of people in this country who have been left behind, and so we are hopeful that with his Presidency, the country will be truly opened up and it will be a country for all Americans.

—Nathaniel Banks, Champaign Unit 4 School Board Member 

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His election means that the country has changed drastically. It means hope, it means change, it means possibilities for our young people, and particularly young people of color. It's probably the best thing that American could have done for its people.

—Larine Cowan, Assistant Chancellor and Director of Equal Opportunity & Access at the University of Illinois

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I couldn't be more proud. It's easy to forget just how rare the peaceful transfer of political power is, yet in America it happens all of the time, from the lowest office in the land to the highest, even after elections contested as hotly as this one was. A Presidential inauguration is the final act of a two-year electoral process in which we, the people, choose our executive leadership. While I'm not thrilled that Obama won, I am hopeful that he'll be wildly successful as President, as his successes are now the country's successes, and we could use a few of them right now.

Gordy Hulten, IlliniPundit

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Respect. Empower. Include. I'm hopeful that these words, prominently displayed in the many field offices of President-Elect Barack Obama's Presidential campaign, will serve as a reminder to all of us, in both our personal and professional lives, that the real work gets done when everyone has a seat at the table.

Lisa Bralts-Kelly, Smile Politely Contributor

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"The enormity of this election has been a slow fire in me, burning ever bigger as time goes on. The hope Obama has communicated is very real. This is going to be a better country than it has been in the last 50 years. I like the vision he has for America to be part of the world, and not the owner of it. He seems to actually believe in America, which helps me to believe in it as well. He has opened the way in this country for a better conversation about race, opportunity and equality. Change in that area may be slow in coming, but at least the conversation can be made better. Finally, he has thrown a banquet and everyone is welcome to attend."

Thom Moore, former Champaign Unit 4 School Board Member 

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We hope that Barack Obama, against all odds, will land our crippled airplane safely on the water.

Jean Thompson, Author and National Book Award finalist

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Indeed, since the passage of civil rights legislation in the mid 20th century, black Americans have witnessed little significant progress forward relative to other groups. For example, relative to whites, they have experienced higher rates of incarceration, lower academic achievement, higher rates of mortality and morbidity, and higher rates of poverty. Indeed, since the 1960s, we begin to witness generations of black Americans who lived unemployed, underemployed, or otherwise without the socioeconomic support to realize their full potential. Even middle class African Americans continue to face daily acts of racism and discrimination. Further, as the economy tumbles downward, they are disproportionately impacted by housing foreclosures, business failures, high interest rates and prices.

The election of Obama represents something that many African Americans, I would argue, never expected to see in their lifetime. Certainly, my parents and grandmother remain in disbelief that this inauguration is going to happen. They expect assassination attempts or something along these lines. Those of my generation are thankful that our parents and grandparents have lived to witness what most believed was the impossible in a society that was built on racial segregation and inequality. We are also thankful that for our children there is someone(s) in the White House that looks like they do and has a similar class background. However, mostly I think that African American families see an opportunity for America to hope for once more, and actively realize an America that contributes to the potential of all citizens. It is a chance (at least a hope) for humanity in a world that is clearly working against those at the bottom — and racialized minorities especially. Now, this is a lot for any individual to carry on his/her shoulders. However, I think that African Americans have no choice but to be optimistic, if not cautiously so. They have, after all, little to lose.

Jennifer F. Hamer, University of Illinois Associate Professor and Interim Head of the Department of African American Studies

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We will soon have a president who loves language. I know that's not the whole of the job, but it sure helps. Presidents need to rally the people, caution the people, warn the people, stir the people. To do so, they need to know and respect the languages of the Republic — the idioms that, throughout our history, have brought us together as a people. Barack Obama knows those languages, from the Founders to the civil rights movement. It will be a personal and professional pleasure to listen to this President.

John Murphy, Associate Professor in the Dept. of Communication, University of Illinois

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I'm critically ambivalent. On the one hand, there is symbolic value in Obama's election that could lead to a social shift, some increase in an awareness of a collective consciousness, for whatever that's worth. And the campaign itself has done wonders for the revival in participation in grassroots movements. These potentials, along with the fact that he personally brings a different kind of thought and intelligence to the office, are all positives.

On the other hand, Obama's election serves to further blur the connections between racism and capitalism, and further reinforces the myth of meritocracy, where, in theory, everybody has a shot to succeed in this system. In my mind, these are both dangerous ideas. The "success" of capitalism necessitates losers, and those losers disproportionately have black and brown skin. The more we evoke the rhetoric of the "post-racial," the further we move toward obscuring the connections between racism and economic oppression.

In terms of symbolic value, I'm more excited for Michelle assuming the first lady-ship and having two black girls live in the White House than I am with Obama's election. The better the black woman does, the better we ALL will do. If Michelle's positionality can be used, by her or others, to bring a more specific focus to the raced, classed, and gendered cocktail of oppression that is particular to black females, that might be a way to transfer the symbolic to the substantive.

Michael Burns, UIUC Graduate Student in English

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Between Clinton and Bush and with help from enough scandal-ridden Congressmen and staffers to fill a stadium, one of the intangibles that has been created over the last twenty years is a cynicism about politics, political leaders, and government. Since the states have all contributed their fair share to filling Cynicism Stadium (Blago being merely the most recent), the result has been a pervasive tendency to view anything that puts community first as merely spin. We no longer believe that people do good things because it's the right thing to do. Instead, we wait for the other shoe to drop. We wait to find out the agenda, to hear the lie exposed, see the power that's secretly pulling the strings.

What I hope Obama keeps with him in the White House is what got him elected: the ability not only to inspire people to find the time to spend days or weeks campaigning for him, but also the straightforwardness that justifies that faith. I hope he remains real. I want him to be someone we can believe, without fear of being duped. Imagine what a luxury that would be after so many years of disappointment!

Marci Dodds, Champaign City Councilwoman District 4 

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Barack Obama. His voice still resonates within me every time I hear him ... every time I see him. I never thought that I would live to see it ... not even in my lifetime.

One thing breaks my heart though. For eight years we tolerated a white man who we wouldn't hire to run a gas station ... right? He was a poster child for white privilege and meritocracy. However, for a black man to be elected President, he almost had to be super human! That's the "black tax" illustrated for all to see. To paraphrase Chris Rock: "... a black man has to fly to where a white man can just step."

I only hope that he's given a fair try. He is the first black American president. As a result, he is under an immense amount of pressure to perform. He is not a saint, he is not magical, he is not a messiah, he is not a deity. However, some would paint him as such and he will be found wanting. I hope that we let him be a man — an American man that cares about this truly great nation. Let him be that and I think we might have a shot at fixing a lot of the problems that are plaguing our country and the world.

This is not a "post-racial" moment. In fact, race is probably more polarized now than ever. We have to remain vigilant to stamp out discrimination wherever we find it. He inspires us to action ... to play our part in whatever way we can.

He made me believe in America again ... and let me tell you, that was an impossible feat.

God bless America — and I mean that.

John Jennings, Associate Professor of Graphic Design in the School of Art + Design, freelance illustrator, artist and activist 

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I am heartened by the fact that the highest office in our land is now occupied by a self-made man. Our nation faces many challenges. We must transform the political energy wrought from this last election cycle into a sense of civic duty. Without hard work, participation, and imagination from the American people themselves, President Obama will be left with an impossible task.

Anthony Pomonis, Co-owner Merry Ann's Diner, 2008 Champaign County Board candidate

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The inauguration of President Barack Obama represents the sea-tide of change — in culture, politics, race relations, and religion — happening in our country. It is both encouraging and challenging — encouraging because of the incredible hope for the security of a better future for millions of people; challenging because the problems he inherits as the leader of our nation are formidable. And he must still win the confidence of the 48% of Americans who did not vote for him or his platform.

Perhaps the church will now be galvanized into action, and most importantly, united in its refusal to engage in criticism but rather daily prayer for our President (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

Ben Hoerr, Pastor at Vineyard Church in Urbana 

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There is a great deal that I look forward to during President Obama's first term. First, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2010 can significantly aid in the progress of the ratification of CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). Those of us closer to these issues understand the years, and sometimes decades, of work it often takes to move these important issues a mere inch. I also look forward to seeing how the perception of the United States will inevitably shift to a more positive light around the world with the appointment of Susan Rice as U.N Ambassador. Lastly, it is my greatest hope that social services to the poor are not neglected in the next four to eight years, and that issues of extreme poverty are acknowledged realistically and from a grassroots perspective. A national effort to organize from the ground up is what what this country has needed for many years, and this just might be the time for us all to make it happen.

Rachael Dietkus-Miller, Smile Politely contributor and activist who has advocated for the abolition of the death penalty statewide and nationally, and presented statements on women's rights issues at the United Nations 

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I hope nobody tries to kill him.

—Angelique Clinton-Causley, tenth grade, Urbana High School

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This whole phenomenon has brought back memories, because I remember when FDR was elected. I was in second grade and lived in East St. Louis and many of my schoolmates' fathers were out of work — and I remember the surge of hope.  Roosevelt seemed like a father figure to everyone, with the fireside chats and the way our parents reacted to him. It was very worshipful, and they were leaning on his leadership. 

And then I fast forward to this time, and I was thinking how different it is. We also have this great surge of hope, but Obama is more like one of us, like a brother, and it made me think, now we've grown up. Maybe we are now an adolescent society and have matured. We've lost our innocence and we have blood on our hands, there's no doubt about it, with these terrible wars. 

But, we are at a place now where I think we can work with our president. He'll give us leadership, certainly, but he won't give us assignments. I think we're going to figure those out ourselves. So, I think it's a great new day.

—Ellen McDowell, Catholic Worker House 

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ANYONE else as president has got to be better than Bush. Obama initially provided me a real sense of optimism and, yes, hope. However, hope is very much about change, especially considering the blows that working people have encountered in the last four decades (am I really this old?). The latter part of the campaign and Obama's cabinet appointments dissipated most of his momentum away from existing policy. The new administration is now clearly oriented towards continuity. As a historian and community activist, it's important for me to remind us all that real change comes from the bottom up, and that we need to hold Obama accountable by continuing to mobilize pressure for change from the outside.

Mike Lehman, historian and Urbana resident

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I am a bit of an Anglophile at this point in my life. In addition to all the UK magazines that cross the threshold of our home, we watch a fair amount of BBC America and also, of course, a lot of English cinema. One thing that is striking to me as an American, is the comfort level of race on British TV shows. The Black friends and the Asian friends always seem to be perfectly integrated. I think that it is fair to say, that we feel a twinge of envy at that naturalness about race. However, with the victory of our wonderful new President, I feel like shouting out, "Yeah, you got the United Colours Of Benetton on the fantasy world of big and small screens, but hey, we got it done in REAL LIFE."

Cody Sokolski, Owner and Developer of One Main Development, guitarist of The Delta Kings

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I voted for Barack Obama.

I'm one of those people who didn't hear many specifics in the speeches. Sometimes the message, when specific, sounded more like pure socialism than one expects from a major party candidate.

So for me, it came down to three things:

1. The Republicans must be punished for their spending, frivolity, jackbootedness, and co-mingling of church & state.

2. He's a black man. Let's show ourselves and the world that that's okay.

3. Sarah Palin

Rob McColley, Smile Politely contributor

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I am looking forward with real hope and expectation that Obama will bring justice and end the senseless murders that are taking place all over the world, but specifically in the Middle East. I hope that even though he chose people to be part of his cabinet that I highly disagree with, that he will have the leadership to bring them to the table of justice, and to enforce justice, and not allow them to run the same game that's been run for the last four years.

—Carol Ammons, Champaign County Board District 5 and co-founder of CU Citizens for Peace and Justice 

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To Barack Obama, I pray that you continue to be a light to humanity and don't get caught up in politicking for goodness.

—Aaron Ammons, Co-founder of CU Citizens for Peace and Justice 

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African Americans are starting to rise in the political scene. Obama will be able to change how America is run, take it in another direction. Even though we are a superpower it won't be just about us, America trying to fight other people's wars, but to help people.

—Kyle Bullock, first-time voter and senior at Centennial High School

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President Obama is making history, and we are part of that history in being here in the year of 2009. I thank God for President Obama. What it inspires me to say, as has been said all over the country, is that there is nothing that we cannot do if put our minds to it and hearts in it.

I believe one of the things we should do as citizens, but mainly as Christians, is to pray for President Obama, and his family, and for his cabinet that God would protect them. And that we pray not only for their protection, but for their guidance, that he would let God's spirit guide him to lead this country. We are going to need a God-centered man, a man that follows God to lead this country, because this country is in a mess.

—Pastor Jimmie O. Holmes, Morning Star Freewill Baptist Church

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Never in my lifetime did I think a person of color would be President of the United States of America. We are all in this together and he will lead us out of this mess we are in. But we must do our part, individually and collectively, and our efforts will pay big dividends.

—Skip Thompson, Martin Luther King Scholarship Committee Board Member