American Beauty: The Inauguration as Medium and Message

President Obama taking the oath of office as his family looks on (Photograph of PBS coverage)

The American Revolution was a revolt against “kingly power,” that, upon succeeding, evolved into a gamble that ordinary people could rule themselves without a monarch.  The republican government the Framers devised nonetheless featured a novel office—that of chief executive—who, being the choice of the populace, would function as the nation’s symbolic head for four years’ time.  Without some such “people’s sovereign,” the Federalists believed, the new government would have trouble securing the affections and loyalty of the citizenry.  The ritual of the inauguration has taken shape around preoccupations like these.

The inaugural was held on the west front of the Capitol (Photograph of PBS coverage)

Relative to the pomp surrounding British monarchical rituals, for instance, American inaugurals are low ceremonies indeed.  Since John Adams’s early disastrous experiments in aping the British monarchy, presidents and their families have avoided ostentatious costumes or trappings offensive to democratic sensibilities.  Officials take the oath of office wearing ordinary street clothes, allowing the “majesty of the people” to take center stage.

The president listening to the inaugural proceedings (Photograph of PBS coverage)

The preference has been strong for an open-air ceremony.  George Washington set the tone in 1789 with his swearing-in on the balcony of Federal Hall (then the seat of Congress) in New York City.  Though harsh weather has sometimes forced inaugurals inside, their location has generally been selected to allow them to be witnessed by largest possible number of people.

A vast crowd came to the National Mall to take part in the 2013 inauguration (Photograph from PBS television coverage)

Over time, the inaugural has evolved into a full and appropriately expressive ritual, especially through the device of the inauguration poem (a custom begun and carried on mainly by Democratic presidents) and the performance of American song.  In the right hands, the inaugural’s simple components can be coaxed into a whole of considerable beauty and eloquence, as was certainly the case with the inaugural  last Monday.

The ceremony was beautifully orchestrated, planned with an understanding of how its elements could combine.  From invocation to closing prayer, Obama’s second inaugural presented an aesthetic and patriotic vision of the American essence, receiving its purest expression during James Taylor’s simple rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’ on acoustic guitar.  At the same time, several complex political messages were effectively conveyed.

1. Ours is an inclusive, multiracial republic.

The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic (Photograph of PBS coverage)Visually and verbally, the inaugural moved beyond tokenism to demonstrate the diverse and inclusive character of the US today.  The crowd gathered on the Mall, as well as all those with an official part in the proceedings, showed the fruits of the country’s long struggle to make good on its egalitarian principles and dreams.  The reality of integration and inclusion was embodied in the faces of the military, in the diverse complexion of officialdom, and in all those clergy, singers, poets, musicians, and orators, who were called on to inspire, entertain, instruct, bless, and thrill us that day.

Beyonce leaving the inauguration, where she performed the national anthem (Photograph of PBS coverage)Coinciding with Martin Luther King Day, the inaugural paid homage to the nation’s centuries-long quest for civil equality, encompassing the struggle to end slavery, extend the franchise, welcome the immigrant, and end archaic practices that are discriminatory.  Progress toward these goals, though incomplete and painfully achieved, is evident, and our maturity as a pluralistic country was joyfully ratified on Inauguration Day.

2. Religion is central to American civic life, but not in the way Christian conservatives imagine.

Religious sentiment (of a peculiarly American kind) suffused the inaugural proceedings.  Its historic role in inspiring Americans to preserve and strengthen the Union and to persevere in the face of injustice was humbly acknowledged.  In the ceremony, religion figured as a fountain that Americans must continue to draw on as they seek to discern the right and the true.

Myrlie Evers-Williams somber invocation and Reverend Luis Leon’s benediction extolled the blessings of religion as a unifying and transcendent force, binding together and uplifting the American people.  Driving the point home, the multiracial Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir wowed the crowd with its rendition of the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ a Civil War-era song about militant righteousness and Union, written by northern white abolitionist Julia Ward Howe.

Was the inaugural satisfying in part because it sketched the spiritual and patriotic dimensions of the Obamas’ own deep personal faith, a faith that opponents have often assailed, belittled, and misrepresented for the sake of political gain?  At the same time, the intense but inclusive spirit of the inaugural seemed a rebuke to the more narrow and divisive Christianity that social conservatives espouse.

3. The condition of the people is the President’s main concern.  Maximize their security, happiness, and well-being, and national  prosperity will follow.

President Obama delivering his inaugural address (Photograph from PBS coverage)Jeffersonian thought has been so marginalized in political discourse that commentators hardly recognize its essence today.  President Obama’s repeated use of phrases and ideas from the Declaration of Independence in his speech signaled his interest in governing in a Jeffersonian vein.  It’s an interesting idea, but what does it mean?  For Jefferson, it meant providing a framework for the individual so that the the individual could flourish.  Jefferson was not anti-government—he was the architect of many enduring and expansive national projects—but he believed chiefly in that government necessary to protect and promote a prosperous and self-realizing citizenry.  When it came to big projects, Jefferson was all about innovation and efficiency.

4. The relationships born of our civic life enjoy a priority over those of corporations or the economy.

The Capitol as seen from the Washington Monument on January 21, 2013 (Photograph of PBS coverage)

Throughout his career, President Obama has sought to reinvigorate the potent role of citizens in political life.  David Brooks, though admiring the inaugural address, regretted the president had not devoted more of it to the budget, the markets, the economy, or free enterprise.  We’ve grown accustomed to thinking that government must be mainly about these.  But are these truly the chief interests of a republican government?  Are these the interests that need protecting?  American business will continue to find a way, whether the Obama administration puts its might behind that project, or not.  The president believes that investment in human capital is the chief requisite to making the economy thrive.  As if to underscore the point, inaugural poet Richard Blanco offered a lyrical, Whitmanesque view of American work in his spare yet impressive poem, One Today.

5. We are all citizens, and, as citizens, must fulfill certain transcendent obligations consonant with the great power reposed in us.

 The best part of the president’s speech was its conclusion.  Pointing to oath-taking as a unifying ritual, the President likened his oath to others we have taken, whether as schoolchildren, government officials, new citizens, or members of the military.  The promises we make to our country bind us together in a way that transcends the claims of self-interest and party.  The president closed with an appeal to each of us to continue to make our voices heard.

The president looks back on the Inaugural crowd (Photograph of PBS coverage)

Obamacratic Gossip

Michelle Obama during Monday's Inaugural Ceremony (Image taken from PBS Newshour coverage)

I heard it first from the security guard in my office building.  We were chatting about the inauguration, when he grew animated.  “What’s going to happen after this?” he abruptly asked me.  “The Democrats don’t have anyone to come after Obama.  They only have one person.  You know who it is?”  It astonished me to realize he meant the First Lady.

“If that happens, I’ll tell everyone I heard it here first,” I replied, taking his words as a measure of the fervid loyalty the First Family enjoys in some camps.  Whether Mrs. Obama, who has never held public office and was a reluctant first lady, would ever contemplate a presidential run seems doubtful to me.  She’s an entirely different sort than Hillary Clinton, who, since her school days, has been a political animal through and through.

Imagine my astonishment, then, when I ran across this image on a heavily visited website (The Obamacrat) that assumed the same thing: that a Michelle Obama candidacy would be viable in 2016.  If nothing else, this incipient “draft MO” movement suggests how ready citizens of perhaps any nation are to place their trust in established political families, fueling a dynastic element that has been an unmistakeable and constant feature of American politics, as evident during the Federalist era as it is today.

Photograph of Mrs Obama
made from PBS Newshour coverage of Monday’s presidential inauguration.

What will Michelle Obama do with four more years?

A Prisoner of the Bully Pulpit Breaks Free

Photomontage of Theodore Roosevelt (Courtesy of Cornell University Library via Flickr Commons)


Theodore Roosevelt, though a fine president in many ways, left behind one baleful legacy: the idea of the presidency as a ‘bully pulpit,’ by which he meant a superb vantage from which to preach to others about how the nation should be.  When you hear presidential candidates speaking confidently of the miraculous feats that will follow from their being elected, it’s the misleading cadences of a bully-pulpit preacher you’re hearing.


To an extent difficult for us to appreciate today, Roosevelt’s conception of the president as an active visionary was revolutionary, departing in significant ways from the executive role the Constitution laid out.  Our scheme of government assigns the president a few plain duties, which, given the size and scope of the government and its role in the world, constitute a staggering burden.  In addition to serving as the symbolic and ceremonial head of the nation, the president executes the laws, conducts foreign policy, commands the armed forces.  Presidents often function as party leaders, but their constitutional function is essentially one of interdependence, for a president cannot make a law, placing every president in that regard very much at the mercy of Congress.


During the first century of the nation’s life, presidents grappled with this limitation in various ways, but Teddy was the first to dare to act as though it didn’t exist.  He was determined to make the president the determining force in all things.  Like Satan—the most powerful angel in Milton’s celestial firmament—, he chafed at playing second fiddle; he longed to be God.  Suiting actions to words, Roosevelt broke the mold, becoming a media-oriented president intent on using his considerable intellect and celebrity to reshape the nation and govern Congress.  Initiative pulsated from the White House.  It was all very thrilling.  Moreover, it kept Roosevelt constantly in the spotlight, which was something he liked.


Since then, Roosevelt’s conception of the presidency has become our conception, too.  In what is a sad distortion of the Founders’ vision, we expect the president—a single person—to do the work that Congress should be doing.  This, in turn, leads to a confusion about where responsibility lies.  The American people spend more and more time agonizing over presidential choice, more and more time trying to decide which campaign promises and bold visions please them more.


It was clear from the start that Barack Obama sought to be an activist president in the Rooseveltian vein.  His entire campaign the first time around was based on the premise that he could “change Washington,” reorganize the business of politics, and define a new political epoch singlehandedly.  For much of his first term, he seemed at odds with the presidential role, chafing at its limitations and behaving as though his ability to extract specific laws from Congress was the sole yardstick later generations would measure him by.

Influencing Congress became his preoccupation.  Whether the issue was health care or the debt ceiling, President Obama spent much of his first term lecturing Congress and the public—chiding and exhorting the nation to embrace his vision for us.  His love of showing his mettle prompted him to become over-involved in fruitless wrangles whose results were properly the responsibility of a weak and recalcitrant Congress.  The “victories” so gained were costly indeed: witness a health-care bill ahead of its time that, regardless of its merits, heightened partisan rancor and left much of the nation resentful and unpersuaded.


As recently as January, the president’s bully-pulpit predilections were on full display, when he chose to use the State of the Union address to tell Congress its business rather than report candidly on governmental progress.  Yet, between then and now, Obama has seen the light about an activist presidency, about what a dead-end it is, how it takes a certain set of conditions to achieve.  In the meantime, he has racked up a steady tally of gains, showing himself to be very able in directing foreign affairs and the military.  And he retains the support of a large part of the electorate, who value his honesty and intelligence and see him as persistent, prudent, and humane.


Which brings us to the president’s recent acceptance speech.  Some listeners were disappointed; others found the speech a bit desperate or weak.  We all noticed a difference.  The bully-pulpit fervor we’ve grown so accustomed to was missing.

Instead, the President re-articulated his fundamental role as ‘the people’s sovereign’—the keeper of the people’s interest, uniquely entrusted to embody and articulate their general sentiments and needs.  This emphasis on the president’s traditional role as the national symbol of the people’s rule enabled the President to remind his listeners of their primary role as citizens, in a system in which his power is ‘from the people.’


Lacking the glitz and razzmatazz of his earlier speeches, the president’s speech that night was pitched in a lower key.  Its high points were not remarkable for policy specifics, but for their embrace of a more constitutionally sound notion of the presidency, one focused on executing the will of the people and the astute exercise of presidential duty.  The speech’s most important moment came when Obama said, “I’m not a just candidate for the presidency.  I am the president,” a simple declaration that eloquently accounted for his changed tone.

For a sitting president who a year ago styled himself an underdog, this embrace of experience and authority marked a great leap toward political maturity.  Scaling back the high-flown rhetoric and grand visions of which he has been so fond, the president has raised his ambitions in another way: making a bid for greatness by renouncing a view of office that offers self-gratification now.

Regardless of the continuing deep divisions in Congress, the nation can repose confidence in the seasoned president we have now.  All in all, it was a moment I rejoiced to see: a prisoner of the bully pulpit breaking free.

President Obama delivering his acceptance speech before the Democratic National Convention, Sept 6, 2012 (Screen shot courtesy of WTTW Channel 11 Chicago)

Top image: “Five hundred different views of Theodore Roosevelt,” from this source.
Bottom image: Screen capture of PBS Newshour coverage of the Democratic National Convention.