For a nation sunk in financial crisis and shaken by recession, the inauguration of the 44th president seemed to have as much boisterous bonhomie as a Big 10 football game on a blustery afternoon.
Senators and Supreme Court justices were gawking and pointing at celebrities on the risers above.
President George W. Bush — booed lustily by the crowd in front of the platform — sat firing jokes at Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice John Paul Stevens.
After walking onto the inaugural platform, Bush gave a quick kiss to Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., and had a momentary encounter with the man whom he beat in 2000, Al Gore. Bush got a much warmer greeting – a modified shoulder squeeze — from former President Bill Clinton.
From a vantage point on the viewing platform a couple of hundred feet away, Justice Clarence Thomas could be seen chatting and laughing with House Democratic Whip James Clyburn. It was a conversation between two very different African-American men of the South, Thomas of Georgia and Clyburn of South Carolina, who came of age in the early 1960s.
Bipartisan cooperation became physical when Sen. Carl Levin received a boost onto a chair from Sen. John McCain – so Levin could snap a picture. It was his version of a class photo.
Would-be presidents abound
It was also a morning full of poignant reminders of what might have been: One of the earliest arrivals on the platform was Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who in Iowa in 2004 seemed likely to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
Would-be presidents were all over the platform: the man Obama defeated, McCain; the man George W. Bush defeated, Al Gore; and the man Ronald Reagan defeated in 1984, Walter Mondale.
The party atmosphere amid the throng that stretched out from the Capitol and down the Mall was to be expected. But what was most surprising was the lack of solemnity —the giddy, contagious happiness — of normally staid Democratic members of Congress seated on the platform behind the rostrum.
It seemed at times as if we were back in Iowa, or South Carolina, on the campaign trail one year ago. The crowd’s chant of “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma” began in anticipation of his entrance.
Leading a nation confronted by financial distress, Obama often has been compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the films of FDR’s solemn inaugural in 1933 show none of the effervescence of Tuesday’s ceremony. Nor was Roosevelt the object of crowds chanting, “FDR, FDR!”
Address veers from FDR's path
And unlike Roosevelt, Obama did not use his address to lay out a lengthy indictment of the financiers whose errors helped create the financial crisis.
He settled instead for just a passing blow: “Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.” The crowd responded with a huge cheer.
Roosevelt, taking office in 1933, was far blunter: “Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. … The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization.”
As he did during the campaign, Obama claimed that he had inaugurated a new kind of nonpartisan, non-trivial politics.
“We come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics,” he declared.
A nonpartisan paradox
There was a paradox in his victory last November. After heartbreaking defeats for Democrats in 2000 and 2004, Obama proved far more successful than Gore and Kerry at inspiring party loyalists to ever greater heights of intensity. He did so by campaigning as a nonpartisan who promised to overcome the bitter partisan divide.
But as Obama looked over global politics on Tuesday, he made what seemed more a prediction than promise: “The lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.”
It seemed a most optimistic forecast given Russia’s invasion of Georgia last summer, Israel’s invasion of Gaza last month or the ongoing wars in Sudan and elsewhere.
His evocation of national service had the ring of a McCain campaign line: We honor our soldiers, Obama said, “not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.”
In calling his fellow citizens to action, Obama sounded like Roosevelt, not Democrat Franklin Roosevelt, but McCain’s hero, Republican Teddy Roosevelt: “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.”
Perhaps a less historically significant yet more powerfully delivered line was Obama’s reference to himself as the son of a black man from Kenya: “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” It again met with a wave of cheers.
Borrowing a line from an Astaire musical
One oddly retro note was a partial quote from Dorothy Fields’ lyric in the 1936 Fred Astaire musical “Swing Time”: “We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America.”
Inaugurals are almost always about remaking America. Take, for example, Ronald Reagan’s address in 1981.
Standing where Reagan stood, Obama gave his twist of Reagan’s famous axiom: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem – government is the problem.”
For Obama it was: “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.”
Which programs? This speech wasn’t the occasion for unveiling detailed policy. An inaugural speech is a primarily a scene setter, an overture to the symphony, not a guide to the events that may unfold.
The prologue is written
Even a hardened political cynic can’t help but be moved by what transpired Tuesday. While the address did not seem quite the equal of some of Obama’s bravura campaign speeches, there was the fact of this man standing here – the astonishingly quick rise from state Senate to president in only five years.
After all, inaugural speeches, even the immortal ones, can’t be expected to change history itself.
A magnificent first inaugural address by Lincoln, invoking the “mystic chords of memory” and “the better angels of our nature,” did not prevent the Civil War, which began one month after he delivered it.
And FDR’s stirring “nothing to fear but fear itself” in 1933 did not prevent the Depression from lasting well until 1939.
Nor did Reagan’s belief that “government is not the solution” prevent federal spending from growing by two-thirds during his eight years in the White House.
Obama has simply read the prologue.