Inauguration Day, 2009 in Washington, DC was grueling but inspiring. The minus 8 degree cold was bone-chilling. The crowd of two million plus was frequently suffocating. The 20,000-officer security cordon was smothering. Yet people endured the discomfort good-naturedly. Neither cold nor crowds nor mile-long detours from blocks of blocked off streets would deter Obama’s faithful from celebrating his historic ascent.
Fueled particularly by Washington, DC’s African-Americans, who came out in droves, Obamania gripped America’s grand but all too frequently cynical capital city. The outer lane of “K” Street, infamous for its slick lobbyists, became a bazaar with hawkers selling cheap knickknacks emblazoned with messianic sentiments: “Yes We Did” on a bumper sticker; “Never Give Up on Your Dreams,” on a commemorative booklet”; “The Healing Process Has Begun” on a banner; “A Legacy of Hope” featuring beatific images of Barack Obama and Martin Luther King on a poster; and “Thank You Jesus, We Never Would Have Made It Without You” on a T-shirt. One Moroccan immigrant kept saying, “Only in America, only in America,” as he watched the self-described skinny kid with a funny name become president amid such a worshipful crowd.
At the inauguration, Obama seemed sobered by America’s unrealistic expectations despite such crushing challenges. While Obama’s inauguration was moving, his address was muted. Now, Obama is such a master speechmaker that, as with Babe Ruth swinging a bat, anything less than a game-winning homer disappoints. Still, Obama seemed determined to manage Americans’ expectations, warning that America’s problems could not be solved simply by sloganeering.
Obama understands that the growing cult of personality surrounding him is a great asset, giving him a mandate to succeed. But he also knows that hope is like a balloon, if properly inflated it soars into the sky, dazzling, delighting, and elevating; but if overblown, it pops. The frenzied hopes his election triggered could sour.
Shrewdly, pragmatically, constructively, Obama wants to channel this energy into a badly needed sense of communal renewal. His campaign slogan was “Yes We Can,” not “Yes I Can.” He is continuing the initiative he began with his lyrical, extraordinary 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, trying to articulate a vision of liberal American nationalism that works for the 21st century. Obama’s repudiation in 2004 of the “red America” versus “blue America” division, his inaugural celebration of “our patchwork heritage” as a “strength not a weakness,” seeks to forge a new nationalist center that heals America’s wounds, and revives a sense of community.
Barack Obama is a great nationalist. He understands that while nationalism can be ugly and destructive, it can also be a force for good. Nationalism is community writ large; it can pull individuals out of their selfish orbits, launching them into a universe of good works and great achievements. In his inaugural address, trying to solve the decades-long debate about the size of government, Obama reframed the question, saying, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” He then articulated an activist nationalist vision that empowered the people, saying “For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”
Similarly, regarding foreign policy, Obama tried to resolve the fight between realists emphasizing America’s needs and idealists hoping to spread democracy and other American ideals worldwide. Thanks to the backlash against George W. Bush’s overselling of democratic hopes in Iraq and elsewhere, the realist school is ascendant – frequently displaying a strong isolationist streak. Obama’s initial campaign focus on just getting out of Iraq played to Americans’ historic isolationism. But minutes into the job, Obama already acknowledged that the world looks very different when viewed from the Oval Office’s big, bullet-proof, picture window.
Moreover, the surge’s success in Iraq stabilized the situation, precluding a quick withdrawal. And while Obama relies on some realist advisers, he is imprisoned by his own soaring rhetoric and aspirations. Obama does not just want his administration focusing on what is right for his country; he wants what is right for his country to be right for the world. Just as true isolationism is impossible for the world’s only superpower; neither can any American, let alone Obama the hope-generator, avoid the idealistic impulses in the country Obama’s hero Abraham Lincoln deemed “the last best hope of earth.” For all those reasons, Obama declared when inaugurated: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”
In launching his administration, Obama has demonstrated that he just might govern as he speechifies, creating a “Yes We Can” muscular moderation that advances a substantive agenda in ways millions of Americans in the big, broad, pragmatic center can applaud. And during this hopeful moment, when the Obama presidency has only happy tomorrows ahead and no embarrassing yesterdays – yet – we should all join in hoping that this extraordinary politician can live up to the best of his rhetoric and the heady aspirations people are projecting on him, in the streets of Washington, and throughout the world.
by Gil Troy
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Visiting Scholar affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
Reprinted with permission from the History News Network.