I watched the inauguration eight hours late, the Obamas’ exit simultaneously imminent and superseded news. I’d forgotten the clutch of breath at watching the helicopter lift off no longer bearing the call sign of Marine One for a passenger who’d entered the Capitol as President. Trepidation, its physical signs, can be indistinguishable from anticipation. The familiar marble skyline crossed behind the helicopter; the aerial videographer was keeping the Obamas in frame, composing one of those shots that lose their essence if stilled, each frame yielding less in itself than in relation to the frames before and after, in sequence.
The telecast stayed with the crossing a while before cutting to the next legal business. The recording finished. The picture switched to an inaugural ball, live, split screened with presenters and expert guests. In the ballroom, Sinatra was being covered. Former President and First Lady Obama were by then in California.
I was gradual in supporting Barack Obama in 2008. I admired Hillary Clinton’s matter-of-fact getting down to mundane work as Senator and over two terms earning respect from senators of both parties. I saw a sort of magical thinking in Obama’s invocations to cooperation between contending factions. The philosophies and policy positions prevalent in Congress seemed to me irreconcilable, party doctrines too absolute, adhered to too absolutely, parties defined by their opposition. Change we could believe in seemed phrased to elude disagreement, inviting expectations so diffuse that supporters were bound to be disillusioned, hopes bound to dissipate unsatisfied.
I remember listening to Obama’s 2008 Philadelphia speech on race and being aware at some point before he finished speaking that I’d leaned from Hillary to him. As so many of his best speeches as President would be, the Philadelphia speech was responding to a crisis rather than scheduled for a regular event. Minus the particulars of 2008 uproars, it could be delivered today with equal urgency, paragraphs exchanged with paragraphs from his January 10, 2017 Chicago farewell speech, sections lent out to populists less deft at threading personal history, political moment, policy aim, and the long roots of problems Obama acknowledged that he wouldn’t resolve:
And contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle or with a single candidate.
If the Philadelphia speech is an early single from a hit double album, the farewell speech (Google lists it first at whitehouse.gov; look for it in the press) closes the album in the same or a complementary key. Obama blends lofty and homely, jaunty and somber. The farewell speech to me reads as less a cousin to presidential farewells, sharing expert admonitions and privileged insights from time in office, than to Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, responding to public distress, evoking common heritage, calling on “us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining.” Obama calls on us anew to be “anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy.” Acknowledgements of diverse groups serve as reminders to all in common:
So regardless of the station we occupy; we have to try harder; to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.
Obama doesn’t let “us” and “we” rest as rhetorical devices but defines the terms in which he uses them:
Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen.
And with that he drops “we” for “you.” He is a citizen speaking directly to fellow citizens:
[Our democracy] needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. […] If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere.
It’s the closest he comes in the speech to addressing the failure to sustain and build on the coalitions that won his elections.
Reading this year’s inaugural before hearing it perhaps inflected my listening. I noticed emphases not in the text, how “country” was enunciated, its “c” scooped, as I’d noted during the campaign, with Hillary Clinton, too, in the fall. I don’t recall before the 2016 campaign remarking on such emphasis, a possessive, affronted (anxious, jealous?) emphasis on an elemental concept. Was “country” to supplant “nation,” as George W. Bush had favored “America” over “the United States,” a term of mystic heritage over a term of law, a sense of geography over recognition of social and political compact?
Not by the text. The speech uses “country” nine times, “nation” and variants thirteen.
By Google’s analysis of publications in American English, since 1900 the peaks and dips in use of “country” and “nation” largely sync, though the general trend is downward for “country” until the early 2000s:
German writers catalogued by Google prefer “nation” to “country.” Use peaks during the World Wars, in the 1930s, after the building of the Berlin Wall, and during reunification. In Russian, except for a few spectacular peaks before World War One and during the 1920s while the New Economic Policy was in effect, “nation” and “country” figure little compared to in English and German, but since 1998, relative to years before, use of both words has spiked. French writers also favor “nation” over “country,” and use it more than do German or Russian writers. Use peaks in the World Wars and at the end of the Cold War. Both words’ use in Spanish is increasing. But none of the percentages match “country” in English.
Why does “country’s” use rise separately from “nation’s” in the early 2000s and peak sharply in 2008? What upended a century-long trend? (Surely more than the troubles of Countrywide Mortgages.) And after 2008? What next?
If synonyms’ frequency spikes and dips in sync, there’s likely a shared external reference, word use excited by excitement in the world. If one word’s use spikes and the other word’s doesn’t, an idea is newly in flux, contested.
“Undo,” “Delete All” aren’t always simple or quickly accomplished in the physical world but the resources of the government will be put toward the attempt. Science will go undone, data go uncollected while ice sheets continue to break up. Effort that could go toward furthering equity and justice will be expended to preserve past progress, and won’t suffice. But while emission rules are canceled in Washington, researchers in California will develop solar panels whose efficiency and inexpensive manufacture at scale in Indiana will make further coal-fired power plants economically unappealing in Ohio and unneeded in Shanxi. Designs for small-stream hydro facilities tested in Patagonia, downloaded from a solar-powered cloud computing facility in Utah to 3D printing facilities in Hyderabad will allow entrepreneurs to defer taxes by putting yields from Mumbai exchanges toward generating electricity from streams in preserved forests.
Hope woke for me after Saturday’s marches, at such a visible response and catalyst, but the marches aren’t the first catalyst. Reporters are questioning baseless statements. Too often in the months leading up to the election, as in past years, such statements were repeated as in themselves news. Now, as healthcare is likely to be revoked, front-page articles describe legislative processes and forecast results in detail that (with a few notable exceptions) I don’t recall in the popular media last year.
I feel something like the flex at the start of running. This run will be long, two years and then another two. I think, to keep the thought before me, how, in the United States, authority is granted not to but by the people. I think how anxious so many people are now, how highly resolved and dedicated. I think how while in motion we intuitively understand our position in any given instant as not only or primarily itself but as a difference from behind and ahead, the next step and the next. The landscape changes as we move. The job is never done.
Photo and composite: Sarah Malone
Constitutional Convention. The Constitution of the United States. 17 Sept. 1787. National Archives. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/1667751. Accessed 24 Jan. 2017.
“Google Ngram Viewer.” Google, https://books.google.com/ngrams. Accessed 23 Jan. 2017.
Lincoln, Abraham. “Gettysburg Address.” 19 Nov. 1863. The Avalon Project, Yale University, 2008, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/gettyb.asp. Accessed 22 Jan. 2017.
Obama, Barack. “Read the Full Text of President Obama’s Farewell Speech.” Los Angeles Times, L.A. Times, 10 Jan. 2017, http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-obama-farewell-speech-transcript-20170110-story,amp.html. Accessed 22 Jan. 2017.
— “Sen. Barack Obama Addresses Race at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia.” Washington Post, The Washington Post Company, 16 Mar. 2008, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/18/AR2008031801081.html?sid=ST2008031801183. Accessed 22 Jan. 2017.
Trump, Donald. “Inauguration 2017.” PBS NewsHour, PBS, 20 Jan. 2017.
— “Donald Trump’s Inaugural Speech, Annotated.” The New York Times, New York Times Company, 20 Jan. 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/20/us/politics/donald-trump-inauguration-speech-transcript.html. Accessed 20 Jan 2017.