WASHINGTON -- Irony is hard to define but you know when you don't see it.

Irony is the gap between ideals and reality, the gap between expectations and what happens.

It was ironic of Thomas Jefferson to defend as "inalienable" the rights of all men to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness while he owned slaves.

It was ironic of Abraham Lincoln to author an Emancipation Proclamation that only freed the slaves in the states that had broken away from the Union.

It was ironic of African Americans to fight a war against Nazism abroad and return to racial segregation at home.

But as my wife and I watched Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen on television, singing "This land is your land, this land is my land ..." at the Lincoln Memorial program before the inauguration of Barack Obama -- and we began to sing along -- there was no irony in that moment. The inauguration of a biracial president with African roots and a global autobiography causes even the most cynical among us to feel proud to be part of a country that made this possible.

You would have to have a heart made of stone to be unmoved by Laurie Madsen, a woman I met on a Metro train, who jokingly called herself "one of the few liberals in Utah."

Old enough to witness the tragedies of the 1960s on television, "I marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in my house," she said, choking back tears. "Now I feel blessed to march to Obama."

I felt her joy. Watching King deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial made me want to be a journalist. I wanted to witness history while it was happening. Like others of my generation, I did not dare to expect to live long enough to see King's dream become as much of a reality as it has. Irony recedes as Obama's victory raises the expectations that we Americans have of ourselves and our country's capacity for racial fairness.

Yet, disabuse yourself of any notion that irony has died, despite such suggestions from public intellectuals as diverse as author Joan Didion and "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart. Political honeymoons soon end. A gap between expectations and reality inevitably opens. Critics and comedy writers quickly regain their footing.

Are expectations of Obama too high, journalists ask? It's easy to see how the world might get that impression. Obama iconography was abundant long before he took his oath of office.

You could see it in the ring of Obama-branded commerce around the Washington Mall -- a bizarre bazaar of Obama caps, T-shirts, playing cards, bobble-head dolls and other paraphernalia of Obama-love.

Top of the kitsch pile is the "Barack Obama condom." "Use with good judgement" (sic) its foil wrapper advices. Irony lives. At least, the company didn't try to use the real Obama campaign slogan, "Yes, we can!"

Like the "John McCain condom" offered by the same company, it has no official link to the man whose name and photo it features on its foil wrapper. And neither does the blissfully irrational exuberance that many well-wishers around the planet have expressed about Obama's victory.

Rev. Eugene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, offered this reality check in his opening prayer at pre-inaugural ceremonies. "Bless us with patience and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be fixed anytime soon," he prayed, "and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah."

Obama supporters with whom I have talked seem to know that, despite die-hard critics who mock his "Savior" appeal to liberals. Once the inaugural party lights have faded, everyone should know that President Obama becomes just another chief executive who must sink or swim on his ability to handle the job.

He seemed to say as much in the subtle appeal for help that he included in his inaugural address, even as he tried to keep hopes aloft. "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility," he said, "a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task."

With that he raises a new question: It is not only whether he will live up to our expectations that matters, but also whether we will live up to his.

(E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com, or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.)