As I wandered through the crowded mall in Washington D.C. on Inauguration Day, chatting with people and overhearing many other conversations, a theme emerged.
Or rather, two themes.
Folks of older generations as well as the African-Americans on the scene seemed to see the day in largely symbolic terms. Obama is our first black president, sworn in the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Obama represents a significant step toward realizing Dr. King’s dream of a just world and one in which men are judged by the quality of their character and not the color of their skin.
This symbolism was not completely lost on the younger folks on the mall, but people too young to have personally witnessed (or participated in) the civil rights movement seemed to see the day more pragmatically. To them, the election of Obama represents a shift back to a government that values competence and toward a post-partisan one that welcomes debate, seeks consensus and eschews ideology.
I think the big deal about Obama is that both perspectives are true, although I count myself mostly as one of the latter group.
In politics, superficial things matter, and if dark skin isn’t enough to kill a person’s chances of becoming president, then a funny name often is. I remember people saying in 1988 that “Michael Dukakis” was too ethnic-sounding a name for the White House. If that’s the case, then “Barack Hussein Obama” should have been catastrophic – especially in these Islamophobic times. Obama, however, transcended his name and his race (not to mention his exotic upbringing and his lack of experience) almost at the outset of his campaign. He transcended it and brought enough of us along with him to get elected president.
At a cocktail party before the inaugural ball, a question was circulating: “When did you decide you were going to vote for Obama – instead of Clinton, or McCain, or someone else, or no one at all?” One person said it was when her 10-year-old daughter told her she thought Obama would be the best president “for the future.” Another person said he refrained from choosing until Obama seemed like the candidate who had the best chance of defeating McCain.
As for me, Obama had me at “no red states or blue states, but only the United States.”