Obama vs. the First Black President
By: Andie Coller and Tim Grieve
January 19, 2009 09:41 AM EST
Barack Obama will have a rival for the spotlight at Tuesday’s Inauguration: the nation’s First Black President.
The swearing-in of the country’s first-ever African-American commander-in-chief will be a central storyline for the media and for many in the jubilant crowd — but it is not the tale Team Obama is trying to tell.
“The fact that this is historic is unavoidable. And it is powerful, and it is emotional,” says Linda Douglass, chief spokesperson for the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Committee. “But the paramount goal here is to communicate through the activities and events that we are one people.”
Of course, there's no way for Obama to keep Wolf Blitzer and Chris Matthews from holding forth about the historic nature of Obama's presidency; even 10-year-old Malia, when told by her dad that he’d be giving a speech at the inauguration, replied: “First African-American president — better be good.”
There’s a natural temptation to situate Obama’s inauguration in the arc of the civil rights movement. A huge sign in a Georgetown shop window recounts a saying that circulated during the campaign: “Rosa sat so Martin could walk; Martin walked so Obama could run; Obama is running so our children can fly!”
But aside from the inescapable — the location of the Lincoln Memorial, where King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech,” and the fact that the King holiday comes a day before the inauguration – Obama’s Inauguration celebrations will do little to promote him as the carrier of that torch.
“We’ve tried to make sure that from the people’s point of view, this is about them,” says Douglass. “This is not a celebration of an election — it is a celebration of our common values.
At a train stop in Baltimore Saturday, Obama drew his inspiration not from the heroes of the civil rights movement, but from the “farmers and lawyers, merchants and soldiers” who gathered in Philadelphia in 1776.
In Philadelphia, he said he hoped that Americans could “recognize ourselves in one another and bring everyone together — Democrats, Republicans and independents, north, south, east and west, black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American, gay and straight, disabled and not.”
For the Washington portion of Obama’s “Inauguration for All Americans,” event planners have checked off the boxes for all of those demographic groups.
Sunday’s “We Are One” concert at the Lincoln Memorial featured Beyonce and Mary J. Blige, Bono and Bruce Springsteen. Gene Robinson, the gay Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, said a prayer at the concert; pastor Rick Warren, a California conservative who opposes gay marriage, will deliver the inaugural invocation Tuesday; the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, an African-American civil rights leader from Atlanta, will deliver the convocation.
Itzhak Perlman will play violin after the swearing-in ceremony; Yo-Yo Ma will play cello.
It's the same something-for-everyone approach other recent presidents-elect have adopted — remember Bill Clinton's plan for a Cabinet that "looks like America.” And anyone who's watched Obama's rise knows it would be foolish to expect anything else.
“He was never going to have a Soul Train Line on Pennsylvania Avenue,” says William Jelani Cobb, an associate professor of history at Spelman College.
From the very start of his campaign, Obama has refused to allow himself to be cast as a “race” candidate, framing his personal story as an “only in America” narrative that fit squarely within the humble-roots histories of presidents like Abraham Lincoln, on whose Bible he will take the oath Tuesday.
When the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright forced Obama to confront the question of race head-on, he pushed back directly against what he called “the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens.”
For the most part, says Paula D. McClain, professor of political science at Duke University, Obama has approached the subject “without a bullhorn saying, ‘This is what I’m doing.’” McClain offers as an example the diversity of Obama's cabinet, which she notes was simply achieved, not trumpeted.
“Throughout the campaign, it has been understated,” says Cobb. “You know the Whitman quote, 'I contain multitudes’? That really applies to Obama in that way,” he says. “I’ve been saying he’s kind of a Rorschach test, where people look at him and see what they imagine him to be.”
The week before the Inauguration, Obama himself reminded the nation: “This Inauguration isn’t about me. It’s about all of us. At this defining moment in our history, it serves as our opportunity to come together in common purpose, united in our resolve to renew the promise of this nation and meet the challenges of our time.”
Obama’s greatest opportunity to convey this message, of course, will be the inaugural address.
Says Democratic strategist Christopher Lehane: “The speech, broadly defined, sets the stage for his presidency — and so even if the historic nature of his candidacy is a focal point, the vision and tone [of the speech] is what will frame the future and establish the Obama brand for his presidency.”
If Obama addresses the social import of his presidency in his speech, he will undoubtedly use it to pivot his audience away from the past and toward the future, as he did in the “race speech” in Philadelphia last year.
But few expect that he will focus on the issue at all.
Obama-watchers expect a nod to the civil rights movement in the speech, but not much more, anticipating that the new president will allow the participation of major African-American figures such as Lowery and Aretha Franklin to speak to that aspect of the day.
“Those of us who will have the job making an analysis of this will spend most of our time with the question, ‘What does it mean to have a black president?’" says Ronald Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. "But I don’t think [Obama is] going to spend much time on it at all.”
In the end, of course, attention will be paid no matter what Obama says or does. The number of black faces on the Mall will testify to the exceptional nature of Obama's presidency; George W. Bush won just 11 percent of the African-American vote in 2004; the crowd that turned out for his Inauguration in 2005 painted an island of white in the middle of Washington.
And neither Bush's inaugurations nor Clinton's were marked with a Hip-Hop Ball, as Obama's will be Monday night.
So will Obama get his message of unity and inclusion out amid the hoopla over his first-ever status?
“He’s masterful in a number of ways, and one of those ways is balancing lots of issues,” says McClain, who notes that there has been “no serendipity” about Obama’s success thus far.
Cobb concurs, adding that the president-elect has a track record of not only meeting such challenges, but of making it look effortless:
“He’s managed to very gracefully execute this balancing act, and to do things in ways we hadn’t imagined before,” he says. “He’s managed to pull off this high-wire act and look like he’s strolling through the park.”