Three hours before Barack Hussein Obama took the oath of
office to become the nation's first African-American president, the crowd
already looked impossible. Gazing west from the Capitol, you could see them: an
incomprehensible mass of peaceful citizens, overwhelming every monument,
impediment and security banner that had been put up to contain them. The sight
was so arresting that when the senators marched out onto the rostrum, Patrick
Leahy and Orrin Hatch stopped to snap photos.
My first thought, as I took in the sight from the press
stand, was that I wanted them all to stay.
I'd felt the same way on Sunday listening to 89-year-old
Pete Seeger sing Woody Guthrie's oft-omitted verses to "This Land Is Your
Land" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. "In the squares of the
city," he sang to the half-million who'd assembled, "by the shadow of
the steeple, by the relief office--I saw my people."
I saw my people. It's been a long time since a lot of people
in this country felt like their government saw them. "My parents were
texting me these heart-wrenching messages," a friend, the son of Muslim
immigrants, told me. "They feel like they've been welcomed back into the
embrace of the American body politic." Most of the time--in fact, pretty
much all the time--that "embrace" is an abstraction. In a nation of
300 million, we end up outsourcing so much of our citizenship to
professionals--the organizations we write checks to and the politicians we
elect--that we're left with no way to experience the simple thrill of
Which is a large part of why I wanted the crowd to stay. But
it was also because after these eight long years, Washington needs more than new blood; it
needs transfusions by the pint. There are changes afoot, of course, but DC's
hierarchies of power are so embedded it will require more than a few thousand
new staffers to dislodge them.
Case in point: in the weeks before the inauguration, an
energetic trade in inaugural tickets arose, and the economy of power and
influence through which they were distributed was a perfect microcosm of How
Things Work here. The process was murky (how Don King and the Tuskegee Airmen
ended up within a few yards of each other is anyone's guess), but presumably it
was based on nothing more than the routine traffic of favors and clout. This is
a city characterized by a million ceaseless nonviolent battles for scarce
resources: face time with senators, line items in the stimulus, tickets to a
black-tie ball. And these battles reinscribe themselves, fractal-like, down to
the most minute item: politicians campaign for office, their staff jockeys for
jobs within the administration, staffers fight for office space closest to
their bosses and, as one inaugural committee staffer relayed to me, volunteers
battled fiercely for promotion from simple volunteer to the elevated status of
This won't change with Obama as president or the Democrats
in power. Hierarchies will define the new Washington as surely as they did the old.
But the central theme of Obama's campaign, what provided its form and its
content, was the ability of a self-governing polity to overwhelm these
hierarchies, to wrest power from the people standing behind the rope line and
pass it into the hands of those crowded outside.
In his speech--which was somber, subdued and, like
everything about the day, dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of the crowd and the
weight of the moment--Obama referred to the imperative of democratic engagement
as the "price and promise of citizenship."
Hundreds of thousands of people fulfilled that promise for
the first time in their lives in this past campaign, and many of them were on
the National Mall to soak it in. Tamara Stevens, a Republican for Obama
volunteer from the Atlanta
suburbs, had driven up in a van along with four of her fellow volunteers,
people who had been strangers before the campaign. "He's the one that
brought us together," she said to me, describing the bond they've formed.
"It's up to us to stay together."
I wish Tamara and her group could have stayed--not just to
watch Obama take the oath of office or to get gussied up and attend the balls
but for the rest of the week, the whole first hundred days, the entire four
years of the administration. Set up shop: take up residence on the Mall in
tents, along with millions of others in a modern-day bonus army of citizens.
That's a fantasy, of course. But that a crowd like this could be assembled
suggests it could be assembled again, and I hope every lobbyist and staffer and
hack, every member of our elected government, especially President Obama,
remembers that every single day for the next four years.
The problem is that it's going to be very easy to forget.
Outside of storming the city, the mechanisms by which citizens exert influence
over their government are decayed. If they weren't, there's no way Rahm Emanuel
could have spent much of his time on Charlie Rose the week before the
inauguration bragging about how forcefully and seamlessly the new
administration had lobbied Congress to fork over--against the will of a large
majority of Americans--another $350 billion to banks with little more than a
handshake and a promise.
The defining question of the Obama era is whether that crowd
figures out a way to organize itself, force its way past the checkpoints and
security guards and bouncers, and make its demands known. Or whether the people
who enforce the boundaries of the establishment, the ones who give out the
tickets and draw up the seating charts, are able to act like the whole thing