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Obama told a story about America at his first inauguration 15 years ago. These people were there, and they still believe

Elizabeth Alexander was in her hotel room in Washington, DC, one frigid winter morning when she was awakened by a strange noise outside her window. She peered outside and saw a sea of people, bundled against the cold, walking in the predawn darkness towards the National Mall.

It was January 20, 2009, and the crowds were on their way to witness the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama, the nation’s first Black president. The sound she heard was their footsteps, marching almost in unison as their numbers grew, which sounded to Alexander like the “growing rumble of thunder or a crashing wave.”

Alexander had a coveted hotel room near the Mall that day because she was a special guest of Obama’s. He had asked Alexander, an author and poet who was then a professor at Yale University, to compose and recite a poem for his inaugural. Upon reaching the inaugural platform, Alexander saw she was sharing the stage with dignitaries such as boxing legend Muhammad Ali, singer Aretha Franklin, author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, civil rights icon John Lewis and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. 

When she stepped to the podium to speak, the temperature was around 30 degrees and the skies were clear and breezy. She began reciting her poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” an exhortation to “Sing the names of the dead who brought us here … who picked the cotton and lettuce.”

And as she gazed out at the crowd of at least a million people gathered before her, Alexander saw something that was as inspiring as any poetic flourish she could conjure for the occasion.

“When I looked out to the sheer infinity of people, it was a crowd to the naked eye without end,” she says today. “It was hugely multicultural. It went across ages, colors. It went across all visual types.”

Elizabeth Alexander recites a poem during President Obama's swearing-in ceremonies at the US Capitol on January 20, 2009. - Ron Edmonds/AP
Elizabeth Alexander recites a poem during President Obama's swearing-in ceremonies at the US Capitol on January 20, 2009. - Ron Edmonds/AP

After finishing her reading, Alexander returned to her seat to watch Obama be sworn in. And then she heard something else after he completed his oath: The sound of some of the most powerful people in America choking back sobs.

Are we a nation of January 20? Or of January 6?

Today marks the 15th anniversary of Obama’s first inauguration. In the sweep of history 15 years is not that long, yet that event feels like it took place in another time, in another America. For a brief moment in that January sun, the US seemed like it had finally fulfilled the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of reaching the Promised Land.”

Onlookers wept. People in countries as diverse as Russia, Japan, and Kenya cheered as they watched the ceremony on TV. It was a day that Alexander described as one of “euphoria” and “open-mouthed joy.” 

We now know what followed. “Hope and change” gave way to “Make America Great Again.” Racial and political divisions deepened. And on January 6, 2021, an overwhelmingly White crowd displaying symbols of White supremacist groups such as the Confederate flag tried to overturn President Donald Trump’s 2020 electoral loss by storming the US Capitol.

As Americans look back on Obama’s first inaugural, it’s time to ask: Was the hope that so many — on the left and right — felt back then just a mirage, a fleeting glimpse of a flourishing multicultural America that can never be?

Or will the future of America look more like January 6 than January 20?

This is the question CNN put to Alexander and others who attended Obama’s first inauguration. How did they feel then? And looking back, what do they feel now about that day?

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. A pro-Trump mob would storm the Capitol that day in an attempt to overturn Trump's 2020 presidential loss to Joe Biden. - Jon Cherry/Getty Images
Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. A pro-Trump mob would storm the Capitol that day in an attempt to overturn Trump's 2020 presidential loss to Joe Biden. - Jon Cherry/Getty Images

The grim backdrop of Obama’s first inauguration

Glance at images of the beaming crowd on the Mall that day, and it’s easy to forget how uncertain the mood was in the country. The Great Recession had devastated the economy. The American auto industry was on the verge of collapse. The US was embroiled in two seemingly unwinnable wars. Countless Americans were losing their homes and jobs. Commentators warned the country was on the brink of another Great Depression.

Yet for many in the crowd, the mood was one of exaltation.

Ed Wolf, then a senior at Rochester Institute of Technology, had come from upstate New York to watch the ceremony. The Metro was packed on the way to the Mall that morning, but he told CNN there was a glow of warmth and good cheer as strangers smiled at one another.

Wolf said he noticed a dramatic shift in the mood of the crowd at one moment in the ceremony. It occurred when the new president took his oath of office, repeating his full name — Barack Hussein Obama — as protocol dictated. That moment seemed to validate the American Dream, the notion that anyone in the US could rise to the top regardless of their race, creed or class — even a man of color with a funny name.

Former President Barack Obama waves after finishing his first inaugural address in 2009. He took office at a time of national peril: The Great Recession had devastated the economy and the US was embroiled in two wars. - Alex Wong/Getty Images
Former President Barack Obama waves after finishing his first inaugural address in 2009. He took office at a time of national peril: The Great Recession had devastated the economy and the US was embroiled in two wars. - Alex Wong/Getty Images

“When he said, ‘Hussein,’ the crowd around me just went wild,“ Wolf said in a recent interview. “It was like he was saying that he was proud of his name and his heritage and who he is. At that moment, you could feel the energy of the crowd.”

Alexander, the poet, recalls another singular moment from that day. She sat on the inauguration platform next to a tall, stately Black man with a square jaw and white hair. He wore the same button that he had worn to the 1963 March on Washington. His name was Clifford L. Alexander Jr. and he was the nation’s first Black secretary of the Army and an advisor to several Democratic presidents.

He was also Alexander’s father. He and her mother had taken Alexander in a baby stroller to the 1963 march when she was just a toddler. She had grown up in DC, and that inauguration day was a homecoming for her. As they sat together onstage, Alexander told him, “Don’t look at me, daddy.”

“Because he would have made me cry,” she said recently with a laugh. “It was like, ‘Look straight ahead, man. We are staying composed for this.’”

Former US President George W. Bush and his wife Laura are escorted to a waiting helicopter by President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle as the Bushes depart from the US Capitol after the swearing in of Obama as the 44th President of the United States. - Tannen Maury/AFP/Getty Images
Former US President George W. Bush and his wife Laura are escorted to a waiting helicopter by President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle as the Bushes depart from the US Capitol after the swearing in of Obama as the 44th President of the United States. - Tannen Maury/AFP/Getty Images

At 12:07 pm, Obama walked to the podium. He, too, made a little nod to history. He marveled that “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” The crowd erupted in huge applause.

Obama then told a sweeping story about America’s diversity that evoked his own upbringing as the son of a Black man from Kenya and a White woman from Kansas. He asked people to believe his presence that day was no fluke — it was a quintessential American story.

“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness,” he said. “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture… and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve.”

That day Obama talked about America’s diversity as a strength. But 15 years later, the question must be asked: How many people in a post-January 6 America still believe that?

Today, some see America’s diversity as a weakness instead of a strength

The United States’ de facto motto is E pluribus unum: Out of many, one.

We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people – our strength — from every country and every corner of the world,” President Ronald Reagan said during a 1989 White House medal ceremony. “And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation.”

But there seems to be a growing belief among some Americans that our country’s fabled diversity — its mix of races, ethnicities and immigrants — is in fact a weakness.

Former President Trump recently said that undocumented immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country.” Vivek Ramaswamy, who ran for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, said last year, “Our diversity is not our strength. Our strength is what unites us across our diversity.”

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a press conference at 40 Wall Street on January 17, 2024, in New York City. - Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a press conference at 40 Wall Street on January 17, 2024, in New York City. - Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

In recent years “replacement theory,” a White supremacist belief which insists there is a conspiracy to replace Whites in America with non-White immigrants, has moved into the mainstream.

Thomas Sowell, an economist and prominent Black conservative, has said there’s not “one speck of evidence” that diversity is America’s strength.

Is diversity our strength? Or anybody’s strength, anywhere in the world?” he wrote in a 2016 essay. “Does Japan’s homogeneous population cause the Japanese to suffer? Have the Balkans been blessed by their heterogeneity — or does the very word ”Balkanization” remind us of centuries of strife, bloodshed and unspeakable atrocities, extending into our own times?”

While many felt euphoric watching Obama get sworn in on that sunny day in 2009, it’s now clear that there was a segment of White Americans who were experiencing another emotionfear.

Some Americans believe fear is a more potent political weapon than hope

There is another question about Obama’s vision of the country that emerges in a post-January 6 America:

Does fear mobilize people more than hope?

Back then, Obama seemingly could have trademarked the word “hope.” One of his books is called “The Audacity of Hope.” A popular memento from his 2008 campaign was the Shepard Fairey portrait of Obama, emblazoned on posters and buttons with the word “hope.” His inaugural speech was full of nods to the concept.

A Barack Obama supporter puts up posters showing one of the most popular images associated with Obama's first presidential campaign. - Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis/Getty Images
A Barack Obama supporter puts up posters showing one of the most popular images associated with Obama's first presidential campaign. - Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis/Getty Images

“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord,” Obama said that day. “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises.”

A young man who stood just below Obama on the platform got a glimpse of that kind of hope Obama evoked.  Michael Wear was then a faith advisor to Obama’s campaign. Today he is the author of the new book, “The Spirit of Our Politics: Spiritual Formation and the Renovation of Public Life.”  

In 2009, though, he was a broke college student who had volunteered for Obama’s campaign after running into him in a hotel lobby. Wear recalls a remarkable moment on the eve of the inauguration that validated Obama’s line in his speech about hoping someday that the “lines of tribe will dissolve.”

At a dinner the night before, Obama honored his 2008 GOP presidential rival, John McCain, opening his remarks by calling McCain a hero. McCain, who had defended Obama’s patriotism and integrity during the campaign when a woman at a Minnesota town hall called him “an Arab,” in turn pledged to help Obama in the work ahead.

“For his success will be our success,” McCain said.

“Could you imagine that happening after any of the elections that we’ve had since Barack Obama has been in office?” Wear said. “Can you imagine this happening after the presidential election that we have coming up now?”

US President-elect Barack Obama greets Arizona Senator John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate, during a bipartisan dinner in McCain's honor on January 19, 2009, in Washington on the night before Obama's inauguration. - Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
US President-elect Barack Obama greets Arizona Senator John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate, during a bipartisan dinner in McCain's honor on January 19, 2009, in Washington on the night before Obama's inauguration. - Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

While Obama built his campaign on hope, his successor Donald Trump’s inaugural address is best known for another phrase: “American carnage.” Trump evoked the scourge of poverty, drugs, street gangs and “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones” and said, “this American carnage stops right here and right now.”  

However, to claim this pessimism about America is confined to the right would be simplistic. Recent polls have shown a majority of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. And there are those on the left who now say that hope is for suckers, that racism is built into the DNA of America and that White supremacy is a permanent feature of the country.

One of the most influential writers on the left during the Obama era was Ta-Nehisi Coates. In a memorable 2015 essayCoates wrote White supremacy will always be a force in America and that writers who write about “hopeful things” are committing to an idealism that’s been disproved by history.

“‘Hope’ struck me an overrated force in human history,” Coates wrote. “‘Fear’ did not.”

Others say it’s important to remember history’s moments of joy

Even so, some who were at Obama’s first inauguration say his vision of America is still something worth believing in.

“I’m sure that some people expected too much,” says Wear, the former Obama campaign worker, of Obama’s vision. “That doesn’t mean it was a mirage. The fact of the matter is, that (inauguration) day happened, and millions of people were there. And he (Obama) didn’t just win once, he won twice.”

Wolf, the 2009 college student who is now an engineer in San Francisco, also says he still believes in Obama’s vision of America. One of his closest friends is a Republican who works in the Michigan legislature.

“We have really good debates about what should happen and we disagree on fundamental issues,” Wolf says. “But the one thing we don’t disagree on is that we’re Americans, and we’re working for a better tomorrow.”

US Democratic presidential candidate Illinois Senator Barack Obama supporters at a rally at Harbor Park in Norfolk, Virginia, October 28, 2008. Many Black Americans greeted his election with astonished joy. - Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
US Democratic presidential candidate Illinois Senator Barack Obama supporters at a rally at Harbor Park in Norfolk, Virginia, October 28, 2008. Many Black Americans greeted his election with astonished joy. - Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

When asked which January date —the 20th or the 6th — best represents America’s future, Alexander answered neither.

“History is cyclical but it’s also very specific,” said Alexander, who is now president of the Mellon Foundation, one of the nation’s largest funders of the arts and humanities.

“We’re never going to have a moment again where it’s the first African American president,” she said.

But she said she hasn’t lost faith in her country, which she describes as this “gloriously complicated multicultural place.”

“During the darkness of the Trump years, I would remind myself and my kids that all of the people who voted for Obama — we’re still here,” she said.

Here is another way to remember that historic day in January.

The author Rebecca Solnit once wrote that “action without hope is impossible,” and that remembering victories matter because that memory can become a “navigational tool, an identity, a gift.”

Obama gives his inaugural address during his inauguration as the 44th President of the United States of America on the West Front of the Capitol on January 20, 2009, in Washington. - Alex Wong/Getty Images
Obama gives his inaugural address during his inauguration as the 44th President of the United States of America on the West Front of the Capitol on January 20, 2009, in Washington. - Alex Wong/Getty Images

“If people find themselves living in a world in which some hopes are realized and some joys are incandescent and some boundaries between individuals and groups are lowered, even for an hour or a day or several months, that matters, ” she wrote in “Hope in the Dark.”

The Obama campaign signs have long ago been lost or stored away in basements and attics. Few people wear “Hope” buttons anymore. But perhaps the memory of that day 15 years ago will help people navigate the future.

What will that future look like? We will have a better idea on another inauguration day — in January of 2025.

In his inauguration speech Obama said he believed that this country would one day move past the “old hatreds” and that “the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve.”

How many still believe that? For many Americans, the lines of tribe have only gotten deeper.

But for some people who were at Obama’s first inaugural and experienced that “open-mouthed-joy,” the story of America is still being written.

They still believe.

John Blake is the author of “More Than I Imagined: What a Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew.”

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