For weeks, there had been conjectures: whom would Barack Obama most resemble on his assumption of power – Lincoln, FDR, JFK, or perhaps even Reagan? Inaugurations tend to turn members of the political class into amateur historians, as they lean back in their swivel chairs and recall this quote from 1937 or that anecdote from 1961. This year the tendency was particularly strong, what with Obama dropping plenty of references of his own – asking to be sworn in on Lincoln’s Bible, arriving by train as Lincoln had done, letting it be known he was doing heavy reading on the New Deal.
There’s something to be said for historical refreshers, but this year’s ritual comparisons risked miscasting the moment in which the country finds itself. Yes, the US faces its greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. But here is what confronted Roosevelt in 1933: a country with 25 per cent unemployment and a mere 100,000 spectators at the Capitol on a gusty March day, with an outgoing president, Herbert Hoover, so glum and resentful that he declined to invite Roosevelt to the customary dinner and sat mute in the car as they drove to the ceremony past tentative applause.
Here is what I encountered as I set off from my Virginia suburb on Tuesday: a subway car packed to bursting, with a mood of levity bordering on the ribald. To escape the crush, I got off a few stops earlier than planned and crossed to the far end of the National Mall via Memorial Bridge. The partly frozen Potomac eddied below, all slate and silver; the low-slung city ahead glowed with import, its institutional and monumental whites and grays suffused with cold clear light; and standing watch behind, up above the great military cemetery on the Virginia shore, was the mansion where once resided Robert E Lee, the Confederate commander and a hero of the former slave-holding state that this year had voted for Barack Hussein Obama, the first Democrat to carry Virginia in 44 years.
Even some Republicans couldn’t help but be swept up in the high spirits all around them
No, this day would be something else altogether, which was why they were coming in such numbers, coming across the bridges and on the endless loop of trains and subways and buses, two million on the Mall and several hundred thousand more on the parade route. All told, the number was not far shy of the population of Chicago, or nearly one in every 100 Americans. It was a celebration, and had been one for some time, refracted in a dozen frames – the waves of African Americans from across the country who viewed attendance as mandatory, many of whom flocked during the previous days to DC’s U Street. This is the longtime heart of the city’s black nightlife which has become, after just one recent Obama visit, suddenly rife with presidential associations; the long-suffering liberal Democrats who rejoiced to hear Pete Seeger, at Obama’s big welcoming show on Sunday, sing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” complete with the protest verses that tend to be skipped in polite company. Even some Republicans couldn’t help but be swept up: Peggy Noonan, a former Reagan speechwriter, rhapsodised on cable about the high spirits all around her with the highest compliment possible: “It has the happiness of 1980!”
Obama, of course, could not indulge in such easy joy at the podium, though he would offer enough broad smiles at the later parade and balls. While he was careful not to overstate matters – his litany of the country’s woes was brief compared with Roosevelt’s in 1933 – his speech was delivered with a sternness that must have left cool some of the shivering thousands hoping for heartier uplift. Partly, this had to do with the new rhetorical landscape before him.
For the past two years, he had been pitching a great and simple story: Barack Obama. All the best speeches, in Des Moines and Philadelphia and Denver, had been elevated by the subtext of the speaker’s rise and what it said about America. But now he must find new ways to inspire a country in which the election of a black rookie senator with a Muslim name is, just like that, an assumed fact, receding on the calendar. He must rely on whatever material the moment and country offer, and if Tuesday’s speech did not measure up to Lincoln in 1865 or Roosevelt in 1933, it may have been because the current crisis does not yet approach what they grappled with.
Obama may not entirely mind this limitation. He has given many speeches these past two years, and may feel that there is only so much left to say for now. His call on Tuesday for a “new era of responsibility”, his praise for the “doers [and] makers of things”, his declaration that there is “nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task”, may have been in part a summons to himself. Rhetoric will never recede in this administration – it will be Obama’s most powerful tool – but after so many promises made and visions conjured, he may be more than ready to get down to business. “For everywhere we look,” he said, “there is work to be done.”
Alec MacGillis is a staff writer for the Washington Post