It is telling that for millions of Americans, Michelle Obama’s outfits last week generated more buzz than her husband’s inaugural address, and that fashion designer Jason Wu is now more of a household name in many circles than are Jack Lew and Chuck Hagel.
Inaugural events have become $50 million spectacles, complete with black-tie after-parties reserved for the political and societal elite.
But to downplay the country’s 57th presidential inauguration (or its 58th, 59th or 60th inaugurations, for that matter) as just another ceremony, just another speech or just another Washingtonian tradition would be folly.
After 1.8 million people attended the 2009 inauguration, nearly a million were estimated to have been present on the Washington Mall on Jan. 21. Yours truly falls into both groups.
Ninety-nine percent of those attendees didn’t come to Washington for the balls or the pomp and circumstance – they came out of respect for the office of the president and in the hope that this president can deliver on the change he once promised.
From Obama’s first inauguration, I remember the cold, the crowds and little of his speech beyond its tone. It was a subdued, cautious and yet cautiously hopeful speech, one that acknowledged the magnitude of the road ahead.
This time around, it was less cold, the crowds were a bit less imposing, and the speech was stark in contrast: more bold, more assertive, and yes, more liberal.
If the president hopes to fight for liberal ideals, that is his prerogative. I should hope the president of the United States would fight for his or her policies, rather than calling for change and then passing the buck to Congress.
But in the aftermath of Obama’s address, I join many in hoping it does not signal a resignation to the partisan politics of Washington and to the idea that a middle ground no longer exists.
President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, widely regarded as one of the more memorable swearing-in speeches, is likely considered as such for three reasons: First, because the media says so; second, because of the content (though I dare anyone to recite a line from the speech from memory); and third, because of the context.
For Lincoln, a peaceful affirmation of the presidency was hardly a given.
There is no comparison between what Lincoln dealt with in his time and the discord seen at various levels of government today.
But we should nonetheless take advantage of an occasion such as an inauguration to rally around the idea of government as a facilitator and a partner, rather than a roadblock.
Obama opened his speech, saying, “Each time we gather to inaugurate a president we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.
“What makes us exceptional – what makes us American – is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’
“Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.
“The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.”
Government works because, and when, people place their trust in it. It is up to our elected officials to earn that trust, but we must be active in the pursuit of what we view as freedoms, lest the inauguration just become another instance of Washington going through the motions.