Manisha Sinha: We Are All Americans in the Age of Obama

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Manisha Sinha is Associate Professor of Afro-American Studies and History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a fellow at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, Harvard University. ]

The inauguration of Barack Obama had barely begun before Americans across the political spectrum started talking about the historic nature and meaning of the event. Indeed, the election of Obama represents, for the thronging millions in Washington at the very least, a seismic shift in American politics. 2008 will surely go down in history as the year of what the noted political scientist Walter Dean Burnham called a critical presidential election that should result in a lasting political realignment. In this sense, the Age of Obama, a moniker Gwen Ifill has used to describe the increasingly interracial appeal of African American politicians, can also be understood in the manner American historians use the terms the Age of Jackson or the Age of Lincoln. If the former was the fulfillment of white men's democracy, the latter portended the interracial democracy we celebrate today. Like Jeffersonian democracy, Jacksonian democracy or the Age of FDR, this latest version of American democracy will forever bear the imprimatur of Barack Obama.

However, while others look to historical precedents for Obama's presidency, what struck me the most was the break he represents from the past. Jefferson may have said"We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans" in his inaugural speech, but he and James Madison nearly drove New England Federalists to secession from the Union. Similarly, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren unleashed a ruthless"spoils system," which rewarded only the party faithful. Abraham Lincoln's presidency started with a nation even more severely divided over the issue of slavery. With only a plurality of the popular vote, Lincoln presided over a broken Union facing the deep rooted opposition of most southern slaveholders and Northern Democratic copperheads. Closer to our times, John F. Kennedy barely won the Presidency in 1961. And Republicans would never forgive Franklin Delano Roosevelt for creating a Democratic majority that consigned their ideology and politics to a permanent minority status for decades.

The Civil Rights movement and its aftermath only exacerbated matters. Ronald Reagan, who ironically was a Roosevelt Democrat before turning into a conservative warrior, was nothing if not the revenge Republicans extracted for years in political oblivion. The Age of Reagan then led to the unraveling of modern liberalism and the political eclipse of its vehicle, the Democratic party. Interestingly enough while the words of Lincoln and Jefferson earned sustained applause from the massive audience at Obama's inaugural concert, the rather bland quote from Reagan which hardly described the Gipper's political beliefs earned barely a clap. The silence in that huge open air arena was deafening. Similarly, the boos that greeted former President George W. Bush at the inauguration marred the otherwise courteous and orderly nature of the ceremony.

The contrast to Obama could not be starker. In an unprecedented show of affection, his countrymen, those who voted for and against him, have launched his presidency with an over eighty per cent approval rating. In the meantime, Obama has assiduously courted his opponents, renouncing partisanship but not principle, calling on the patriotism of all Americans to face the challenges before us. His personal interactions with the former President have been unfailingly cordial, even as he resolutely distanced his policies and ideas from that of his predecessor in his inaugural speech. It is not -- as David Brooks would have us believe -- the end of ideology, but rather the end of a kind of partisan politics that has divided this country for most of its history. It is the start of a new political civility but also the revival of a very old American ideology, republicanism.

Obama in fact harked back to the founding generation's, especially George Washington's, fears of the divisive nature of political parties and factions epitomized in his farewell address to the nation. His inaugural speech, with its evocation of"old" virtues and the founding ideas of American republicanism ironically reinforced the new political style the Forty Fourth President hopes to bring to Washington. Nearly all American Presidents have appealed to American freedom and the country's founding ideals. But in Obama's case that seemingly sappy, patriotic appeal is the basis of a new politics. Pragmatic politically, his speech revealed a true believer in the republican insistence on putting the common good before one's individual self-interest. It was a very effective repudiation of laissez-faire individualism, the basis of modern conservatism in America. And that is why his call to responsible citizenship resonated among a broad majority of Americans regardless of political and religious affiliation or ethnic origin. Obama emphatically repudiated Reaganomics and the politics of racial and social division, whose bankruptcy, literally and figuratively, is now apparent for all except Congressional Republicans to see. As he pithily put it,"I won."

In short, this inauguration was like no other in American history. No memorable sound bites,"We have nothing to fear but fear itself" or"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," emerged from it. Instead like Lincoln's speeches, there were several themes drawn out to meet the challenges of the day and like his favorite American President, Obama argued that the founding values of American republicanism should be the only bedrock over which to base the shifting sands of politics and the compromise-ridden world of policy. It was not just Lincoln's Bible but his political and moral sensibility that Obama has self-consciously and deliberately adopted.

Obama's inauguration speech looked backward to history as a guide to the future. Even more than the Declaration that he cited briefly, he gave us a new and updated version of Thomas Paine's appeal to universal humanity and citizenship that characterized The Crisis essays, Common Sense and The Rights of Man, the revolutionary founding documents of American and western republicanism. Unlike most of his predecessors, who remained bound within the national confines of American political discourse even when they appealed to internationalism like Woodrow Wilson, our first transnational President conveyed an inclusive and global meaning to American democracy. Like the leftist popular culture of the 1930s, Obama insisted that our so-called racial, national and religious diversity is a source of strength rather than weakness. Just as he argued that racial reconciliation was seared in his genetic make-up, this son of an African immigrant, step son of an Indonesian father, brother in law to an Asian Canadian, whose cabinet picks reflect the multi-racial and multi-national composition of the American republic today, called on Americans and those outside America to be citizens of the world. It was not a superficial announcement that"America was back" or even merely the"leader of the free world" but a fundamentally new approach to global citizenship where poverty, hunger, disease, and sustainability shall be our common tasks. That he said was the answer to fratricide and violence, the destructive enemy of not just the United States of America but all humanity. To the billions who watched him around the globe, President Obama had a special message and they heard him. We are all Americans in the Age of Obama.

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