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The inauguration: Celebrating our democracy

January 22, 2013

It is hard not to be a sentimental fool when the opportunity comes to celebrate our American form of government.

There is no better time to have such a celebration than a Presidential inauguration.

In many countries, a transfer of power or an extension of the term of office of a leader is an opportunity for violence and protracted instability. Not so in an America governed by the world’s oldest constitution.

In the United States, each inaugural event, whether as a result of a transfer of power from one party to another or through the re-election of the incumbent, has its unique features. Often, events of the day frame the urgency or the level of celebration associated with the inauguration.

This year, Mississippi State University students of the Stennis-Montgomery Association attended their fourth consecutive inaugural — two for Republican George W. Bush and now two for current Democratic incumbent Barack Obama.

The first Bush inaugural was marked by the unbridled enthusiasm of a Republican Party that felt it had enough of the Clinton-style of Democratic Party politics. Add to that the brutal six-week long fight to pry the 2000 election from the jaws of defeat in Florida, and the makings were there for one large celebration.

The euphoria was clearly evident throughout the nation’s capital as Bush ushered in an eight-year run in the White House after his narrow electoral college victory over Democratic incumbent Vice President Al Gore.

The second Bush inauguration in 2005 was, by comparison, fairly somber given the mood of the public in the post-9/11 world.

The attitude was one of anticipating the potential for decades of military action all around the world against an enemy known only be the name of “Terror.”

Indeed, the War on Terror both militarily and financially, set the stage for the historic election of Democrat Barack Obama in November 2008.

Thus in the 2009 inaugural, Obama became the first African American president to take up residency in the White House. All previous attendance records were shattered when 1.8 million people attended the inauguration on the National Mall.

Had Obama’s political career ended with that election, it might have been passed off as simply a yearning for something unique — a momentary desire for a turn toward something very different from the previous eight years marked by multiple Middle Eastern military actions and a growing financial crisis.

Political thinkers have observed that in many respects Obama’s 2012 re-election by a popular vote majority and the subsequent clear majority of the electoral college is more significant than the first election.

Indeed, it serves as an affirmation by the majority of the nation’s voting public of the programs and policies of Obama’s first term administration. That his re-election took place after four years of facing enormous challenges is testimony to public belief in Obama’s ability to continue to successfully fight the nation’s problems.

The 2013 inaugural carried with it an additional air that was unmistakable.

One could easily sense the chests of our nation’s African American community swelling with pride — pride of totally belonging and the pride of a multi-generational struggle for equality and inclusion that has been a success.

By coincidence of the calendar, the 2013 inauguration took place on the Monday that is federally-designated as the holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. Simultaneously being celebrated in Washington was the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves in the midst of the Civil War, the life of Dr. King, whose eternally famous “I Have a Dream” speech occurred 50 years ago in the March on Washington and the inauguration reaffirming the work of the nation’s first African-American President.

The National Mall stretches from the steps of the Capitol to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Any who have walked it remember that trek as a long, yet exhilarating one.

It covers hallowed ground that has hosted many a celebration and an equal number of First Amendment-protected protests.

That famous speech by Dr. King was delivered 50 years ago from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Obama made his commitment to a second and final term as president from the south steps of the Capitol at the opposite end of that great expanse of Democracy.

Thus, in addition to the myriad of problems currently facing the nation’s decision makers the 2013 inauguration was characterized by the celebration of three landmark events in American as well as African-American history. No doubt some heard the echoes of Dr. King’s speech about his “Dream” meeting the eloquently delivered words of Obama somewhere above the National Mall.

The acknowledgment of the confluence of these events hopefully means that an important page has been turned in the relationships among all Americans.

Marty Wiseman is director of MSU’s Stennis Institute and professor of political science. Contact him at marty@sig.msstate.edu.

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