Barack Obama has been hailed as a transformative president, bearing the promise not merely of change but of a renewal of the American republic. Obama’s inauguration may well promise republican and democratic renewal. Paradoxically, however, this year’s is the most monarchic and imperial inauguration ritual that America has ever witnessed.
At its conception, the inauguration of the American president represented a momentary unity of the three branches of government, meeting on the Capitol. There, in the arms of the legislature in a comparatively spartan ceremony, the head of the judiciary swore in the head of the executive. In symbolic terms, each of these branches of the political trinity were equal and independent.
As the United States has become more imperial, so too has the presidency assumed a greater profile and the inauguration ceremony has been embellished to increase the personal prestige of the president. It has also become more religious.
While on the surface they appear very different, it is worth comparing for a moment the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1954 with that of Obama in 2009. In 1954 the British turned to the young Queen in hope of a New Elizabethan Age. In the rituals of the monarchy, the Queen was a cipher through which society worshiped itself. She appealed to an idealised past and an imagined unity.
Obama swept to power on the politics of recognition. Now, through him, diverse and previously marginalised communities are worshiping themselves at the centre of the American state for the first time. Not only African Americans, but gay and lesbian, Hispanic — and above all — young Americans embraced Obama’s campaign in great numbers. These are the people who were shut out by the Bush Administration, and they are using the inauguration to reclaim the state as their own. Obama is conscious of his symbolic role — as he wrote in The Audacity of Hope, "I am a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views".
In this way, Obama has many contradictory faces. These are symbolised by the many rituals being enacted around the inauguration by different parts of society — from the involvement of gay Episcopalian bishop Gene Robinson at the Lincoln Memorial "We are One" concert, to the administration of the inaugural invocation by the homophobic Reverend Rick Warren. Charisma consists in part of the paradoxical combination in the one person of such social contradictions — and Obama has many. In Obama, many Americas, rather than one America, have placed their hope for change.
The inauguration also has startling parallels with the coronation through its use of history and sacred objects. The antique train journey from Philadelphia retraced the steps of Obama’s hero Abraham Lincoln, just as, on her coronation day, the young Queen Elizabeth II retraced the route of her namesake Elizabeth I from the Tower of London. Obama swears the oath of office upon Lincoln’s bible, in the same way the British monarch is crowned with the crown of King Edward the Confessor adorned with Elizabeth I’s pearls. In both rituals, the symbolic head of the nation promises a new beginning at once drawn out of and linked to a mythic past.
The reign of Elizabeth II turned out to be an imperial afterglow — the end of empire rather than the dawn of a New Elizabethan Age. With Obama’s inauguration America may be embarking upon a new era of greatness; or, like the British, the height of its imperial ritual may accompany its long decline from supremacy.
The United States also self-consciously models itself upon the Roman Republic. As the Romans learned the hard way: placing faith in an emperor to save a republic carries its own risks. There, the glorification of the emperor led to the continued undermining, rather than the renewal, of its republican principles.
The procession up the Mall to the acclamation of the people is a ritual that reinforces the authority of a popularly elected president, and Obama is very much "the people’s president", in that he comes to the title at the head of a popular mass movement. On the eve of his inauguration, his organisation has already been shoring up that movement by appealing to the 13 million-strong campaign base to join Organizing for America, to "continue fighting for change". Depending on Obama’s agenda in office, he may need to call upon those people, not only in the next election, but in any battle that may be opened up with the legislature.
For whatever the symbolism of inauguration day, the reality in modern America is still, as Bush learned in 2006, that power ultimately resides in the ability to control not just the presidency and judiciary, but the legislature as well. Lose the Congress, and all the symbols of presidential power become meaningless.
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