Historical Context

Imagine that there are three types of history: Small History, Medium History, and Big History.

  • Small History is what happens.
  • Medium History is why it happens.
  • Big History is the story we tell ourselves about it.

Few events and historical texts bring all three categories to the forefront. But Barack Obama's first inaugural address, from 2009, is one of them.

Small History: America has a presidential election every four years, and each one tells us about the mood of the era. Barack Obama's win in the 2008 presidential election represented a shift away from conservative politics. See, conservatives had dominated the White House since Ronald Reagan. (Even Bill Clinton was a pretty conservative Democrat.) Barack Obama shifted the tone with New Deal-esque rhetoric.

Political commentators (those people you see yakking on TV) like to say that there are "change elections" and "stay-the-same elections." This was definitely a "change" election—and Obama's slogan knew it, too.

On to Medium History: campaigns for the 2008 election started a few years before the actual voting took place. When the actual voting rolled around, things had gone dark in America. In 2008, the country went through the worst economic decline since the Great Depression.

You know that part in Ocean's Eleven when British Don Cheadle turns off all the electricity in Las Vegas for a second? That's pretty much what happened to the economy in 2008. A collapse in the housing market shook the country to its core. People who thought they could afford three homes were suddenly sleeping on futons. Unemployment and lagging business growth followed.

And guess what? When the economy stinks, American voters tend to blame whoever holds office. They elected Barack Obama expecting him to fix what George W. Bush's administration supposedly created. Bush's popularity in 2008 polls was at the level of dinosaur bones, but the economy's numbers were even worse.

So, when Obama took over the White House, he was also taking over a smelly, gross, 8-year-old casserole. And since he had promised Americans "hope" and "change" as a candidate, he was going to have to eat the whole thing by himself.

Finally, the moment you've all been waiting for, Big History: the new president believed that the country would need an inspirational narrative to rally around, in order to pull itself out of the recession. Barack Obama and his speechwriters built just such a narrative around…wait for it…Barack Obama.

Inspirational? Check. Obama became a transformational figure for a generation of young voters. If an African American man could become president in a country with a history of slavery and discrimination, anything seemed possible. With this guy at the helm, getting the country back on track would be easy…or so everyone assumed.

Obama's speeches depicted his own ascent as evidence of the American dream fulfilled. It was destiny, he told people, that America would continue its progress through history.

And become even better, of course.

In 2009, at his inaugural address, voters' honeymoon with Obama was about to turn into a marriage. Before he got down to actually governing, the nation got one more hurrah of "hope."

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