With apologies to the magnificent Al Green for copping the title of one of his greatest hits, there are no other words to describe the vibe at the 57th Presidential Inauguration in the long and storied history of the American republic. An estimated 800,000 people packed the National Mall, from the Capitol building to the Washington Monument, to witness Barack Obama taking the oath of office for the second time, and if there was a cross word passed, I surely did not hear it as I strolled among them.
Among other things, it is the sheer and obvious diversity of the crowd that strikes me. Black, white and brown. Straight and gay. Young, old and all points in between. There are church groups in matching sweatshirts, extended families arrayed on blankets spread on the grass, and veterans of every conflict from World War II to Afghanistan. Therein, perhaps, lies a second-term opportunity for the President, that of moving us from the idea of diversity, with the implication some hear in that of “quota,” to that of inclusion, which confirms the idea that we’re all in this together. Which was a big part of the Inaugural Address, with Obama returning several times to the refrain of “We the People,” the need to find our strength in one another and in the principles we all claim to hold dear.
“Our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth,” he said. It was one of the most stirring passages of his speech, a lyrical call to service that was all the more fitting with the Inauguration falling on Martin Luther King Day.
Obama is one of only three Presidents in the past century — the others are Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan — to be elected twice with a majority of total votes cast (of course, Roosevelt managed the feat four times). Walking on the Mall, bounded and circumscribed by the iconic structures that are touchstones of our national identity, it occurred to me to wonder what it is that these three men have in common.
The election of each, it seems to me, made a statement about America as it was at the time of their respective triumphs. Each was elevated to the Presidency in challenging times, by a voting populace that yearned openly for something different, expressing a need to alter the fundamental direction of the country. Each provoked strong reactions in supporters and detractors alike — a hallmark of transformational figures. Each forged a visceral connection with (most of) the American people, instilling and personifying a sense of the possibilities of democracy and the ability of a single leader to give fresh meaning to the nation’s founding principles.
Of course, the mere fact of Obama’s first election did that all by itself. If America can elect a black President just 43 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, then we are earning our self-proclaimed status as the beacon of freedom. We have quite a distance yet to travel on that road, but only the most blindly jaded and cynical among us can view Obama’s Presidency, reaffirmed by the American people, as anything but progress.
What does the next four years hold? I can’t answer that with any degree of certainty, but if the spirit here, on this day, is any indication, we’re headed in the right direction.