The road from the Capitol building in Washington DC to the White House is 1.7 miles long. On the day of the inauguration, the President covers some of that distance by car and some on foot, physically bridging the space that separates the seats of the legislative and executive branches of government in front of they, the people who elected him.
Nowadays the vehicle in which the President travels down Pennsylvania Avenue is a black limousine surrounded by the black SUVs of his security detail. In Lincoln’s day, it was a stately carriage surrounded by a close guard of cavalry. Were it still a carriage, the event would look to us like a coronation. But that’s just what is: a coronation that keeps up with the times. A ritual steeped in tradition yet befitting a modern nation, linking the past with the future in a manner that signifies both continuity and renewal. Nowhere in recent memory was this more apparent than in the coronation of Barack Obama.
We didn’t need to be told what was unusual about this Harvard graduate, this wealthy man, this lawyer, this Democrat. Nearly everything about him was perfectly ordinary and read like the curriculum of every other presidential candidate. But two months earlier the nation had discovered that it was capable of electing somebody who was all of those things and also black. The promise of America, as glossed by the hosts of CNN on the day of the inauguration, found new expression in this moment, transforming the legacy of slavery and segregation into the conditions for historical greatness. ‘Only in America,’ said Gloria Borger, echoed by half a dozen colleagues and guests. ‘This is the world’s inauguration,’ said David Gergen. Together, these two statements invited the rest of us, the non-Americans, to both marvel at the achievement of the world’s leading nation and to share in its pride.
I wondered at the time if it was hypocritical of me to take exception to this. After all I had followed the Democratic primaries and the American election of 2008 more closely than many elections happening in my own two countries. It’s not just that it was great theatre – although it was. It’s also that the alternatives seemed uniquely stark. John Kerry, who voted to support the invasion of Iraq, had relied almost exclusively on his war record in his fight against Bush, to notably grotesque effect at his nominating convention. The great liberal counterfactual of the 2000 election – that if Gore had been in charge at the time of 9/11, Iraq would not have happened – was belied by the Democratic nominee’s enabling role and the platform on which he was seeking election. If Kerry was a lesser evil, he was also an exemplar of the brutally limited capacity or inclination of liberals to conceive of limits to the use of American force abroad. By contrast, Obama, aside from opposing the war in Iraq at a time when his opinion didn’t warrant much scrutiny and planning to withdraw the troops according to a timetable not vastly different from Bush’s own, had campaigned openly against torture and vowed to close Guantanamo. This was not only materially but also rhetorically significant, in that it shifted decisively the terms of the debate on the American imperium. Here was a Democrat unafraid to appear weak on national security. He’d still be a hawk by most nations’ standards, to be sure, but a pacifist could look forward to opposing the war in Afghanistan again. In domestic matters, Obama seemed in command of a different language for discussing the common good than what I had been used to hearing from Democrats in my limited exposure to US politics. Even if you didn’t hold out too much hope that the policies would match the rhetoric in the new administration’s response to the financial crisis, or in the reform of healthcare, or most especially in Obama’s stated goal to ‘change the way Washington works’, at least the new President would have something to fail at, and something of a mass movement to account for those failures to – political assets, both.
Now I couldn’t even begin to count in how many ways I was wrong. Not only is the progressive cause been hurt in equal measure by Obama’s successes as by his failures, but there has been nothing approaching a shift of the consensus following his electoral victory such as might be reasonable to expect in a liberal democracy; on the contrary, the American Right has been both invigorated and radicalised by its defeat. In 2012 the choice is between a homicidal technocrat and a batshit billionaire, which is closer to the long-term trend, and the inauguration of Barack Obama seems an impossibly far event in time, belonging to a parallel reality in which some of those possibilities hadn’t yet been foreclosed, some of those futures selected.
I watched some excerpts at the time, but recorded the whole event with the intention of watching it much later. I was curious as to how it would date, emptied of some of the original expectations and political content, and without those it looks even more like a coronation. It is especially strange for someone not used to these events to see the President’s family play so large a role. Not only Obama’s wife but his two girls were introduced to the million-strong crowd, along with the ex-Presidents and key current office-holders. Aretha Franklin sang. A poet asked plaintively ‘what if the mightiest word is love?’ An old black pastor delivered in a wonderful monotone a benediction full of the slogans of the civil rights movement. The former President was physically removed by means of a military helicopter, instead of being shot out of a cannon. (The King is dead, long live the King.) And then, after a break for a luncheon on the Hill, the First Family drove, and walked, down to their new stately residence. Like in a royal wedding, if your average blue-blooded couple were this handsome.
Needless to say, the event was already seen as history in the making. ‘Elected, not befallen,’ as the New Yorker recently reminisced in its endorsement of Obama. And like history in the making it was narrated by CNN – whose feed I recorded – as if every frame, every moment needed to be close-captioned in order to pass through the screen. Then there was the hyper-representation, for which the network used the kinds of technologies you might expect at the Superbowl. Chief amongst these was ‘the moment’, a multidimensional image of Obama taking the oath of office created by processing thousands of photographs uploaded by CNN viewers who were present at the event. Within this preternaturally detailed picture you could change angle and zoom into any random sections of the crowd. Shifting the viewpoint or the level of magnification would also show you Obama at slightly different times, multiplying the figure of the President.
Less technically elaborate but in some ways equally disorienting was the composite satellite picture of the Washington Mall at the time of the oath, showing the immense crowd concentrating at what I assume must have been large screens set up by the organisers.
These are ironic technologies to deploy, for a society that under Obama would enhance its methods of global surveillance and make of the aerial view its key modality of understanding foreign territories and foreign bodies. The Barack Obama lost and found in the crowd in the image created by Photosynth is every bit as elusive as Obama the President would turn out to be, while the crowd who invested him viewed from outer space would be the perfect control group on which to calibrate the algorithms of a signature strike. How many of those people could pass as statistical enemies? Together the two images achieve a complete loss of perspective, placing us at the same time too close and two far from the scene, which is American politics, therefore world politics, hence a total abstraction. There is no reality, no referent to get at once you have peeled off all of the layers. In one of the pictures Obama smiles a bit more, in the next, a bit less, like in one of those cards that changes depending on how you tilt it. That is as much insight as you could hope to gain into the man’s behaviour or motives.
Politics in the world’s model democracy is this: the unknowable, programmed into the system. For you might have been cynical about Obama, you might not have believed any of his campaign promises, or you might have thought the absolute worst and accurately foretold that he would one day joke about his daughters’ aspiring boyfriends being taken out by predator drones, but either way I’m not impressed because the product – much like one of those financial instruments that sank the global economy – was packaged so that you couldn’t make sense of it. This, even more than the narrow and arbitrary nature of the choice, is what marks the loss of our democracies.