President Obama was officially sworn in yesterday for his second term as chief executive and, this afternoon, he’ll be ceremonially sworn in with all of the usual Capitol fanfare and speeches. While not as historically striking as his first inaugural, I couldn’t help but to rewind back to January 20, 2009, and the thoughts that were spinning through my head as I watched the first African American family enter the White House as President, First Lady and First Daughters.
Needless to say, it was an electrifying day.
Earlier, in 2008, HBO released their phenomenal mini-series John Adams, and there was a particularly poignant and extended sequence in which the second president, having just been defeated by Thomas Jefferson, arrived at the still-under-construction White House for the first time — his new office and home for the remaining months of his term. As John and Mrs. Adams traveled by carriage toward the iconic North Portico, the couple observed with noticeable disdain that slaves were busily finishing work on the grounds, streets and actual construction of the executive mansion. [Watch the video here.]
As well as giving us a glimpse at a primordial Washington, DC and White House, the scene primarily highlighted the hypocrisy of the nation’s founding: the building that would go on to house the leader of the free world was being built by men and women who were denied their freedom. I think we can all agree that the inability of the founders to work out a settlement on the holocaust of American slavery was their greatest mistake, and it’s a failure that boiled over into a gruesome civil war and still haunts us today.
As we watch the president’s motorcade travel down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House today, we’ll witness yet another extraordinary moment, signifying, among other things, how America continues to turn a corner on race — a corner that could never have been envisioned by the founders and even the Adamses, especially as they walked through the creaky, drafty White House staring with incredulity at the slaves who were laboring finish work on the new seat of executive power in America. Today is great day for America and American freedom. Not the bogus freedom of 1800, but real freedom.
When Barack Obama was elected, it goes without saying that he was acutely aware of the history he was making — how his electoral victory and inauguration echoed back in time to the nation’s original sins. He was also aware that too many Americans considered the election of the first African American to be a bit of an experimental fluke. But his re-election affirmed his abilities as a leader irrespective of his skin color, not to mention his national popularity as he handily defeated the best candidate the Republicans could put up.
This sense of vindication has given the president a striking new confidence, both in terms of how he carries himself and especially how he deals with the childish congressional Republicans. Even prior to beginning his second term, the president has resoundingly defeated the Republicans on the fiscal cliff and has warned in no uncertain terms that he plans to kick their asses on the debt ceiling as well. Furthermore, he’s taken up the issue of gun control with a remarkably bold set of initiatives including a slate of 23 executive orders on the issue, while also planning to push new anti-assault-weapon legislation through what could be a hostile Congress. On top of everything else, the president appears to be readying a legislative agenda featuring both the climate crisis and immigration reform.
If he’s able to achieve half of his second term goals, and if the economy continues to grow and recover from the Great Recession that marked the beginning of his first term, it’s likely that four years from now we’ll be writing about how the nation elected the first African American president twice, sure, but his legacy will be grounded firmly on his leadership, his considerable list of accomplishments, and the fact that he achieved these things in an era of nearly unprecedented opposition party sabotage, obstruction and divisiveness.