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A Citizen’s-eye View of the 57th Inauguration

Citizens and media file into Capitol Hill for the 57th Presidential Inauguration.

Citizens and media file into Capitol Hill for the Public Swearing-In of Barack Obama at the 57th Presidential Inauguration. Photo courtesy of Carah Ong Whaley.

The Presidential Inauguration is an important civic ritual that legitimizes election results and represents a peaceful transfer of power. Last week, I attended President Barack Obama’s second Inauguration with the purpose of providing a citizen’s eye-view of events for RTT followers. While there was a certain measure of pomp and circumstance surrounding the 57th Inauguration, it was off-set by the diversity of the crowd and the President’s liberal, populist appeal.

On the Sunday before the public swearing-in, I attended one of the many Inaugural events being held by non-profit organizations, PACs, lobbyists, and consultants throughout the DC area. These events ranged from black tie balls to more subtle affairs with the purpose of both celebrating political victory and raising more money. Members of Congress made cameo appearances and gave brief speeches to thank the organizations and supporters for helping them get re-elected. They were also already beating the drum to raise for the 2016 election…the never-ending campaign. As one member of Congress revealed at the event I attended, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently sent out a memo telling all members of Congress that they are to spend four hours per day fundraising. By any measure, that is quite a bit of time to devote to fundraising, especially when Congress began 2013 with its approval rating at 14%. How can Congress actually engage in the hard work required to legislate, govern and serve constituents when so much of their time is expected to be devoted to raising money for the next election? Doesn’t this system only further ingratiate Congress to special interests?

At an event I attended, Angus King (I-Maine) emphasized that we are in a unique era of hyper-partisanship and polarization. As a political scientist, I wanted to point out that it’s actually not so unique. In fact, there have been many periods in American political history when the parties have engaged in deep struggles over the role and direction of government. But his broader point was worth noting. King noted that he was elected not to engage in partisan politics, but to make every attempt to get government working again.

Many other politicians and members of the media also made their cameos. The more liberal media, Senators and members of Congress pressed supporters to rally for a more liberal agenda in President Obama’s second term and to gear up for battle in the 2014 mid-term election. From their speeches, there would seem to be no end to partisan bickering in sight.

I also had the opportunity to speak with state party leaders in DC attending the events and inauguration and to ask their perspective on the election. While I have been aware of ongoing tensions between the state party apparati and the President’s organization (Organizing for America, now dubbed Organizing for Action), I was surprised at how deep-seated some of the resentments remain. Several state party leaders I spoke with noted that while the OFA was technologically advanced, the people it sent to the field had no organizing experience. Many expressed that OFA staff were highly paid (receiving greater salaries than state party organizers), but didn’t know how to do their job. Instead, state party leaders complained they did the real work of organizing and simply sent the information up the chain. It remains to be seen whether the President’s organization will help the state and local parties in the 2016 election with the voter information they collected from across the country, but already state and local leaders are pressing OFA to share. 

With press pass in hand, I headed to the public swearing-in early on Monday morning. At our press briefing at the Senate Dirksen building the previous day, we were told to arrive by 7 am in order to get through the gates and avoid the problems experienced at the 2009 Inauguration, even though the crowds were not expected to be as great in number. Indeed, only about one million were on the national mall this year, compared to the 1.8 million that turned out for President Obama’s first Inauguration. Furthermore, according to Gallup, only 65 percent of respondents said they watched the ceremonies live (38%) or saw news coverage of them (27%), compared to the 80 percent who did in 2009 (60% watched live and 20% saw coverage). Recall, though, that the 2009 inauguration had the largest attendance of any Presidential Inauguration in U.S. history. While many attended the 2009 Inauguration because of the historical significance of electing the nation’s first Black President, this year was no less significant, and was perhaps even more so for some in the African American community.

I was particularly struck by the diversity of the crowd at the Inauguration, especially considering how many groups represented historically didn’t possess the franchise. The composition of the crowd also reflected the diversity of the President’s electoral coalition. It was then unsurprising that the President’s speech itself focused so heavily on the theme of equality from the opening lines. Obama began with lines from the Declaration of Independence, a progressive document of its time: 

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.

But Obama expounded upon the principles of the Declaration, exalting the role of government in ensuring equality: 

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.

Although likely inaudible for those not present, the crowd visibly responded to the opening lines with contemplation. And the tone was set for the remainder of the speech. There were loud cheers when the President returned to the theme of equality of outcomes for women, the gay community, immigrants and voters. In essence, Obama used the inaugural to “go public” with a liberal theme for his second term. And from the crowd’s response to Obama’s mention of his liberal programmatic agenda for the second term, including gun control and climate change, it was evident that this Inaugural served more as a pep rally than an event intended to bridge the divide between differing philosophies of governance.

Indeed, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 51 percent approved of the President’s Inaugural address, 24 percent disapproved, and a quarter of Americans had no opinion of the speech. Broken down by partisan affiliation, more than eight in 10 Democrats approved of Obama’s address, but at least three in 10 Republicans and independents had no reaction at all. Meanwhile Gallup found that 65 percent of Americans who watched this year's ceremonies or saw news coverage of them rated Barack Obama's inaugural address as excellent (33%) or good (32%), compared to 81 percent who did so in 2009.

Obama’s Inaugural address certainly attempted to set a more aggressively liberal tone for the second term. In the coming weeks, we expect to see him flesh out the themes of the Inaugural in a programmatic agenda delivered in the State of the Union Address. While the base may rejoice in a reinvigorated champion for their cause, what can actually be achieved in the long-term will depend to large degree upon the ability of the President not only to employ executive action in pursuit of his goals, but also to negotiate with Congress.

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