As the nation celebrated a day of uplift, Wall Street delivered a brutal downdraft. Even as Barack Obama was taking the oath of office, the markets plunged — the Dow dropped more than 300 points and broader indexes slumped on jitters about shaky banks. It was the worst Inauguration Day performance in more than a century of trading.

Wild swings on Wall Street are but one sign that no one really knows where we are economically, let alone where we are going. When Obama, known for his elegant optimism, spoke of “gathering clouds and raging storms” in his inaugural address, it seemed to be implied that not even he knows how to navigate them. If he meant to say we have nothing to fear but fear itself, it did not come across. We have, frankly, an awful lot to fear and Obama seemed to tell us that.

Few analysts believe the perilous economic situation will improve anytime soon. The consensus is that we aren’t to expect anything resembling a return to economic normalcy — whatever that looks like without a housing bubble or a tech boom or loose credit — until about 2010.

But beyond a mammoth economic stimulus package that is to be the first order of business for the new president and Congress, it is difficult to tell exactly what Obama plans. His campaign was a gauzy celebration of new-generation hope, and a recognition of historic racial progress. Yet above all, his election was a primal scream against the policies and legacies of George W. Bush.

Obama’s own ideology remains obscure, wrapped in a youthful, congenial and confident persona. We do not yet know what, exactly, lies underneath. With so little time in federal office, Obama has scant history of taking tough stands or making difficult choices. He has not revealed an overarching worldview and bristles at the notion that he should. His transition to power was soothing, yet his insistence that he will engage with anyone who wishes to offer ideas is, in its own way, troubling.

The root of our financial crisis is that for much of the past three decades, we have implemented very bad economic ideas. Obama seems to get this — and not get it — at the very same time. The question, he said in his inaugural address, is not whether the market is a force for good or ill. He noted that “without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control” and that “the nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.”

Nonetheless he keeps telling congressional Republicans that he will work with them — even though they are among the chief architects of this disaster. Since the Reagan era, Republicans have put tax cuts ahead of all other economic policies, and deregulation a close second. They have stuffed wallets that already were plump, left the broad middle class staggering and allowed the working class to become the working poor. If these politicians that Obama so fervently wishes to engage have such good ideas to offer, why have they not done so? In fact, there are few Washington traditions as annoying as the cultish worship of bipartisanship, for it ignores the simple fact that sometimes one party gets things disastrously wrong.

Another is the mantra that “entitlements” — that is Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — are costly, bloated and threaten the nation’s economic future. Obama already has pledged to undertake “entitlement reform,” a phrase that sends a shudder down my spine. With banks and other financial institutions now “entitled” to hundreds of billions in public money to bail them out of disastrous decisions, it is impossible to see why taxpayers who have paid for their future benefits through their payroll taxes should not be “entitled” to receive them. Besides, since there is no immediate crisis in Medicare — and certainly not in the healthier Social Security program — there isn’t even a reason to mention this right now.

The ease with which Obama glides through political rituals is amazing. So is his ability to soothe while talking about disturbing truths.

Yet symbolism soon will fade as Obama becomes the decider. To decide is to disappoint, even anger, those who haven’t gotten their way and frankly shouldn’t. My hope for the new president is that he understands this, and is willing to take the hits.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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