Obama shared his vision of America at his first inauguration. Some still believe | CNN


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.”

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Elizabeth Alexander recites a poem during President Obama’s swearing-in ceremonies at the US Capitol on January 20, 2009.

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.

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?

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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.

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.

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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.

“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.’”

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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.

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?

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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A Barack Obama supporter puts up posters showing one of the most popular images associated with Obama’s first presidential campaign.

“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?”

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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.

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…

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