The last time Barack Obama stepped up to an inaugural podium, the notion that we would spend four years with the Senate minority leader pledging not to pass a single item of legislation to help the president, the GOP House holding the American debt rating hostage, and countless party members whispering birther conspiracies and publicly sucking Donald Trump's feathered, blowdried asshole would have sounded like lunacy. Now it sounds like a Thursday.
But as wild-eyed and feverish as the GOP counterattack to the Obama White House has been over the past four years, it doesn't quite match the thud of disappointment that eventually settled into the chests of Obama's most die-hard enthusiasts. Today's celebration will be fun in parts. Barack Obama will give a thoughtful and at times moving speech. There will be young people with ruddy cheeks, excited about politics. There will be bunting. As a party, though, Obama's second inauguration has to contend with forces far stronger than James Taylor's ballads or Obama's command of the moment can equal. Things went haywire. And it's our fault.
In some ways, Obama couldn't help but inflate himself beyond his own capacities or inclinations. In a democracy, a leader must inspire, and Obama possesses a unique ability to do so. But even on the 2008 campaign trail, you could see inspiration beginning to outstrip policy, showing the gaps where less excited voters might have found doubt. The bright ambition of change and hope foundered on his commitment to bipartisanship and compromise. Both were promises he needed to make, in the permanent checklist of presidential campaign rhetoric. But to believe in the sincerity of one—and especially Obama's seeming sincerity—meant knowing the impossibility of the other. You can't pledge daring progressive change to your followers while also telling them that you expect to split the difference with a party who compromises by starting negotiations in place and then moving further rightward. While a first-rate online and fundraising presence got the Obama team the names of seemingly every Democratic and young voter, it was the speeches played and replayed on Youtube and posted to Facebook pages that allowed them to feel a part of something. Telling those voters, "Now settle down," would have blown the illusion.
People needed that illusion. Maybe they needed pageantry and peroration to get past eight years of meathead governance, fear and obfuscation. Maybe they just wanted to see America take great strides away from the political rhetoric of racial division, past the Southern Strategy, Jim Crow, the Confederate States, slavery—every half-assed dehumanizing expediency of nearly two centuries. Maybe they wanted to feel the thrill of their own potential writ large.
They weren't alone. The New Yorker ran cartoons of Obama smoking from a cigarette lighter like FDR, riding around in a 1930s convertible. The people who make animated gifs—whoever they are—went nuts with images of Obama. The term "New Deal" got more workout than in a two-hour bloc of used-car radio spots. Everyone remembered the final week of campaign emotion—Obama's quavering voice about his dead grandmother, the celebration in Chicago—while the policy, the inconsistencies, the sucking vortices of the very permanent Washington, D.C., swamp fell away.
I'm no different. I stood in a bar with scores of drunks as the 2008 election returns came in. People hugged and kissed. I came home and wrote one of the most babblingly effusive and embarrassing things ever, a blog post that shamelessly quoted from speeches from FDR, MLK, JFK—the sorts of speeches I'd occasionally get absolutely shithammered and wind up listening to, on Youtube, whenever Bush's we're gunna fight the tairrists—we're gunna smoke 'em outta their hidey-holes armchair warrior routine made me feel like everything was just going to be mean and dumb from now on.
I knew people who went to the inauguration in D.C., people who texted home excitedly and posted to their Facebook pages. People bought extra copies of the newspaper. I did the same, and now I wonder why. Obama gave a thoughtful speech that I listened to thoughtlessly, listening for things I'd prefer to hear and ignoring the great emotive vacuity lurking behind purple prose, Valley Forge references, nods to "canon" American political text. Then he started governing and lowballed the needed stimulus thanks to an economic policy gang comprised of the same jerkoffs who began to deregulate and break the world under Clinton, and it was time for the same old shit again, bent slightly leftward.
And what a lot we got. Obama campaigned as a constitutional scholar who respected the rule of law and abhorred the Bush administration's secrecy. His contempt resulted in an administration setting the record for prosecuting whistleblowers under the Espionage Act. A sober reassessment of our terror policy saw vastly expanded multinational drone killing via an unaccountable "Kill List" his administration pretended didn't exist.
All of this is worth keeping in mind while Obama issues sociopathically sonorous peace encomia, knowing that even at that moment someone under his command is sky-fragging a dead-end Yemeni shitkicker about as threatening to the Midwest as a mayfly is to a jetliner. The dead guy's brothers and cousins might get mad and pick up a copy of Sayyid Qutb, but, hey, put those fuckers on the list, too. While we wait for things to come in range, we can have a reasonable debate about the vast array of options that the Obama administration has set for the counter-terrorism debate: We can kill them and anyone nearby over there with troops and risk our boys' lives, or we can kill them and anyone nearby over there by remote control.
All of this sucks, of course, but the question to keep in mind is whether any of this is especially Obama's fault. Certainly, he keeps authorizing these policies, but whether it sucks belongs partially to all of us.
If anybody wanted to pay attention, Obama revealed himself on the 2008 trail as a callow thinker on military policy. What sounded moderate and even ponderous did so as counterpoint to an administration of lacrosse bros hurling JDAMs at Baghdad. He was callow on health insurance compared to Clinton and Edwards, and he was callow on economic policy compared to both again. Apart from a break from the policies—read, also, "politicians"—of the past, what sounded wonderful were the outcomes that those policies could engender, given a world fortunate enough to desire them. "Assume we had a can opener."
But between the conception and the creation falls the shadow, and it's four years long. It's filled with racism and paranoia and obdurate Republicans, but it's also filled with the essential character of a man that walks far beneath the cruising altitude of his oratory.
Obama was damned. By his party, by the color of his skin, and by the fugue of madness defining his opposition at this point in history. But he and we are complicit in it. He rhetorically sold high while planning to walk a low and level path, one whose direction could just as well be set by those who wished he'd get lost. He pitched great ambition hand in hand with great reconciliation, despite both, currently, being inimical to each other.
Those two pitches required an audience deaf to their antagonisms, and he got it. That exultant greeting in Washington, on January 20, 2009, was given by people happy to meet a man who never concretely emerged in the campaign but did so instead with the ethereal grace of a movement and the ambition of seeing one made flesh. It celebrated someone not elected and someone who was only there for the day. It celebrated something all those who stood there in victory would have to keep working toward the next day, and the next and the next. Four years later, he will probably show up again, but he won't stay long. Those who would be an instrument for his ideas won't be there tomorrow either.