By Lihan Oliver
A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to experience the 57th Presidential Inauguration of America’s 44th President, Barack Obama. The 21 January event coincided with Martin Luther King Day, further adding to the symbolic second term start of America’s first African American President. I joined more than 800,000 citizens and international visitors on Washington’s National Mall to celebrate, to share a part of history, and to reflect on America’s future.
Determined to share in the momentous day, I took a 17-hour Greyhound bus ride from Nashville, Tennessee to the District of Columbia. When I arrived on ‘Inauguration Eve’, Washington was already abuzz with large crowds, and there was a real sense of excitement in the air. Almost everyone’s discussions were centred around how to get to the National Mall, what time to get up, and how to prepare for the weather.
Rising early on the big day, (and after the arduous process of layering defences against the cold) I navigated my way around Washington’s wide, bustling avenues as I moved between the famous museums and landmarks. An incredible level of security had been deployed. Armoured vehicles blocked off virtually every street, snipers could be spotted on most rooftops, and military personnel proudly wore their “don’t mess with me” expressions from behind their shades (an ideal accompaniment to their big “don’t mess with me” machine guns of course!). I soon joined America’s huddled masses on the Mall, and tried to move closer until the sheer thickness of the crowd prevented me from moving any further. I was nowhere near close enough to see anything without the use of visual aids, but I had fortunately positioned myself relatively close to a screen and speakers.
The atmosphere was truly incredible. People were excitedly chatting, befriending strangers (as I did), sipping coffee or watching the ‘TV special’ about topics ranging from America’s veterans, to the ‘First Dog’, Bo. Then at last, after hours of waiting came the familiar sounds of trumpeting, accompanied first by the arrival of past presidents and special guests, and then finally by the President and Vice-President. Their oaths were greeted by enthusiastic applause, cheers and the fluttering of thousands of little American flags, as Americans welcomed Obama and Biden to their second terms at the helm of the US leadership. In this moment I was reminded of the strong connection Americans feel to the Presidency. Their President is in many ways an embodiment of their values, voices and views. I couldn’t help but draw a comparison to Australia, where I feel we still largely lack this true embodiment of our people in our head of state.
For me the significance of the day was captured by the inauguration speech, in which Obama focussed not only on the challenges ahead, but also on the progress America has made towards its ideal of social inclusivity. Quoting from the Declaration of Independence, he captured America’s core philosophy:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”