When Barack Obama first took office, he had a lot on his plate. The U.S. economy was shrinking, and America was fighting two wars in the Middle East. Gas prices were rising at the same time scientists warned of global warming. America's health care system was leaving millions of people without insurance, and costs were rising fast.
Most people would have punted in their inauguration speech. But Obama gives himself a doozy of a task. His 2009 inaugural address essentially promises to hit the reset button on both foreign and domestic policy.
Unpopular wars? We'll end them. Global warming? We'll take care of it. Lagging economy? We'll fix it. After this speech, they should have called him Obama the Builder. If you grew up with Bob the Builder, you know where Obama got the campaign slogan "yes we can."
Obama, a Democrat, goes for the nation's political jugular, saying, "[...] the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply" (13.3). This is the equivalent of promising to cut through a complicated knot with a knife. After all, the three branches of the American government were designed with the idea of preventing rapid changes (source).
Plus, Republicans and Democrats rarely got along—then and now.
Obama's 2009 inaugural address suggests that the times would be a-changin'. But he also makes sure to remind his audience that the challenges "will not be met easily or in a short span of time" (6.2). Gridlock is just how things roll in the United States; while Obama's speech is optimistic, it doesn't imagine that the end of the rainbow is four years away.
Inaugural addresses are often an exercise in optimism and reassurance, and Obama's is no exception. Obama tells America that, by electing him, the nation had chosen the right path forward. "On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord" (7.1).
You might start to notice that this young and charismatic new president has one special trick up his sleeve: rhetorical skill. Speaking with a quasi-religious tone and using all kinds of flourishes, he really makes people believe that they could help bring about change by getting involved in the political process.
Think: Jedi mind tricks for the political masses.
To back up the optimism, Obama appeals to Americans' historical memory, based around a belief in America's exceptional identity. He says America is a country full of "the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things" (8.4). If we could build the railroads, cross oceans, win world wars, and host hot dog-eating contests where tiny humans eat 63 hot dogs in 10 minutes, then we could overcome anything.
The thing is, all those accomplishments happened over decades, and Obama had only a relative few years to be president. By the end of his time in office, he understood that he might have gone overboard in 2009 with the reassurances. In America, change takes time—sometimes, a lot of time. And it might be years before historians can properly evaluate his accomplishments as president.
Anyone who grew up in the 2010s grew up with Barack Obama.
It's kind of like how you know what generation you're part of based on which actor was playing James Bond at the time. (Here at Shmoop, we're mostly Generation Pierce Brosnan, with a few Generation Roger Moore and Generation Daniel Craig members thrown into the mix.)
Obama, like the various Bonds, was a generation-defining politician—and not just because he played the role of president for eight years. Let's count the ways:
1. Obama was the nation's first African American president. We still haven't seen the first African American James Bond, but we're going to go ahead and say that Obama's accomplishment was a bigger deal.
When Obama was born in 1961, Jim Crow laws in Southern states still limited African Americans' freedoms. Martin Luther King Jr. was two years away from giving his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Basically, if you'd told people in 1961 that the nation's first African American president had already been born, you would have gotten a lot of awkward stares.
2. Obama was the first presidential candidate to embrace the internet—especially social media—as a public relations tool. While John McCain was still trying to figure out how to send emails, Obama was building a massive fan base on Facebook. This did wonders for his popularity, especially among the younger generations, who ended up being his biggest backers (source).
Other politicians have followed Obama's lead. You used to have to read the newspaper or attend a press conference to get the president's opinion. Now, if you care about staying up to date, you pretty much just have to go on Twitter. The internet was changing the world anyway, but Obama rushed headlong into it, and carried American politics with him.
3. The Obama era coincided with changing demographics in America. During his presidency, gay marriage became legal and the number of people from minority ethnic backgrounds increased all over the country (source). The fact that he was the first minority president was symbolic of this trend.
4. Historically marginalized groups spoke out like never before in the 2010s. "Identity" is now the word of the times. Journalists and historians debate whether Obama played a big part in this or was simply around when it happened; either way, chances are that new demographics and identity politics are already affecting anyone Shmooping this page.
At the same time that Obama ushered in change, some things stayed the same. When he took the oath of office in 2009, the president-elect was aiming to be a unifier. But once he actually got into the White House, he became a controversial figure. As soon as the adrenaline from the election wore off, Obama faced the same challenges that face every president: opposition and hard-to-fulfill promises.
Even Obama agrees that the country remained just as divided as it had been under President George W. Bush. He probably wishes he'd hired divorce mediators or marriage counselors for his Cabinet to get the political parties to sit down and agree on something.
Heh…political parties agreeing. Cute.
White House Obama Page
Maybe this isn't necessarily the most unbiased place to go, but here's the official government rundown on the nation's 44th president.
A British newspaper, The Telegraph, presents everything you could possibly want to know about American presidential inaugurations. Many British people love following American politics like Americans love following Prince George's latest fashion statements.
A movie starring Woody Harrelson as John McCain's political advisor (and Julianne Moore in an eerily convincing Sarah Palin wig). This is a good look into what happened during the 2008 campaign. Although it is told from a Republican point of view, it's somewhat biased toward the Democrats.
By the People: The Election of Barack Obama
An HBO documentary covering Obama's win in 2008. It focuses on his historic accomplishment of becoming the first African American president.
The New York Times Coverage
America's most iconic newspaper carried a lengthy article about Obama's swearing-in.
HuffPo Covers the Criticism
This Huffington Post article does a nice job of summarizing the main criticisms people had of Obama's 2009 inaugural address. Some people said it was pretty cliché.
2009 Inauguration Ceremony
YouTube carries the complete footage of the 2009 inauguration. It's a nice thing to throw on in the background while you're studying.
Oath of Office Flub
Many people remember the 2009 inauguration for the fact that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts messed up the most important part: the oath of office. Can you catch his mistake?
Keepin' It 1600 Podcast
If you want insight into the mind of the man who helped write most of Obama's speeches, including the 2009 inaugural address, check out Jon Favreau's podcast. Be warned: there is much political bias here.