Eight years ago I sat outside the U.S. Capitol and watched as Barack Hussein Obama became the 44th president of the United States. It was a clear day, but cold; when people applauded, instead of the pop of hands slapped together you would hear the thump thump thump of insulated gloves. The crowds were enormous, the lines for everything before and after the inauguration ungodly long. But the spirit was easy and undemanding, and not terribly political. Rather than a “We Are the Champions” rally, the mood was far more like a Kool & the Gang picnic where everyone was family.
Walking around, I heard some funny comments. “This is really Delaware’s year,” someone mused. Another confided, “Joe Biden once hit on my best friend.” I passed one father saying to his son, “I read that since Obama, won Bush has started drinking again.” His son replied, “Yeah Dad, but that was in the same magazine as the three-headed alien, so it may not be too reliable.” (Ah, how the world has changed in eight years.)
At the Capitol steps, a 30-something African-American man said to his wife, “From slavery to this...”
The truly historic event was the swearing in of our first African-American president, and the moment of the ceremony I most anticipated was the inaugural address. Barack Obama ranks among the most gifted orators the presidency has known. He speaks to people’s deepest truths and highest aspirations. And so he began, as he had often during the campaign, talking about the choice we now made for “hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”“
“On this day,” he said, “we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”
I have to admit that as I stood at this astonishing moment in American history, I wanted more than a rehash of the president’s greatest thoughts and turns of phrase from the campaign. I wanted an exclamation point that took account of what had happened and where we now stood, and then went further by directing us to the next sunny peak.
Mr. Obama did not deliver that. His words were familiar and his performance unexpectedly restrained. In later years journalists would report that he had consciously decided after to pull back on the rhetorical eloquence that won him office, lest he be characterized as all style and no substance. This would prove to be a mistake, one that countless tragedies during his administration would help bring him to correct. While his presidency was certainly built around meaningful policies, President Obama’s greatest talent was always speaking to our best selves, acting as our inspirer-in-chief.
Looking back eight years later, I also wonder if my slightly underwhelmed reaction missed the point. I wanted something new, something more. But Mr. Obama’s insight, from the time he first stepped onto the national political stage at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 until his White House farewell speech, has been that what we need more than anything is not something new, but a reminder of something often forgotten—who we are and how things get better. “As much as government can do and must do,” he said in his inaugural, “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.”
During his presidency Mr. Obama offered this same idea in a thousand different ways—how our “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and optimism” have been “the quiet force of progress throughout our history.” In light of where we find ourselves today, that sentiment may seem naïve and bittersweet. In his recent Atlantic essay on the Obama presidency, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that Mr. Obama’s idealism was both the quality that allowed him to become president and his greatest barrier to understanding the opposition that he faced. “Only Obama, a black man who emerged from the best of white America, and thus could sincerely trust white America, could be so certain that he could achieve broad national appeal,” Mr. Coates writes. “And yet only a black man with that same biography could underestimate his opposition’s resolve to destroy him.”
The truth or foolishness of Obama’s hopeful vision of our country rests in the choices we will make. Much like the reforms of the Second Vatican Council or the vision of a merciful world that Pope Francis offers, the American project was never going to be completed by any one president or in any one term; nor can it be destroyed by any one election or leader. America is and will be what each of us make of it, day by day, year by year.
Near the end of the inauguration, while a flock of birds danced around the Capitol, a quartet performed “Air and Simple Gifts”, a piece composed for the occasion by John Williams. Its central melody was unexpectedly lonely for such a happy occasion, a keening soliloquy that brought to mind less the culmination of a journey than its stark and uncertain beginning—the quiet apprehension felt by settlers and immigrants as they traveled far from the homes they knew across our empty country; the implacable yearning of figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Emma Goldman, Cesar Chavez, Black Elk and Martin Luther King as they stood up, solitary and exposed, and cried for justice.
Even as the song moves on to warmer, more playful and impassioned colors, it never quite shakes that plaintive note, and a beauty that brings with it tears, a dream that has both joy and costs.
Jim McDermott, S.J., a screenwriter, is America’s Los Angeles correspondent. Twitter: @PopCulturPriest.