WASHINGTON, D.C., Jan. 20—Barack Obama, CC ’83, made both Columbian and American history on Tuesday, when he officially became the 44th president of the U.S.
All eyes were on Washington yesterday afternoon, as Obama was sworn in as the country’s first black commander in chief—making him the first Columbia graduate to hold the office.
Nearly 2 million people poured into the Capitol and National Mall to watch as Obama took his oath and called on Americans to support his effort to begin reconstructing the country in the face of economic and political disrepair.
“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood,” Obama said, citing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the crippled economy, inadequate school and health care systems, and lack of efficient energy usage as evidence of the country’s “collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”
“Starting today,” he said, “we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
Obama also called for an end to partisanship and underscored the need for unity to confront the challenges plaguing the country.
“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply,” Obama said.
Obama officially became president before the ceremony had reached his swearing-in, as the noon cut-off came and went during a classical music performance. The swearing-in ceremony broke its air of formality when Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court John Roberts and Obama stumbled over the presidential oath of office, but what may have been the most significant moment of the day came several hours after the ceremony, when Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and their families left the motorcade and walked down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House amid screaming crowds—a scene that suggested the new administration’s interest in becoming closer to its constituents.
Hordes started flooding the D.C. metro area as early as 4 a.m., but some never left the proximity, instead opting to wait downtown overnight in order to be guaranteed a seat on the Mall. As thousands made their way through a labyrinth of detours and bypasses to get closer to the action, inauguration-goers paused frequently to catch glimpses of the president and his family. Many halted to photograph a church in which he was rumored to be attending a service, and the sound of sirens stopped people in their tracks as they hoped to catch sight of the presidential motorcade.
While the mob may have been all-consuming, Annette Schley, a Seattle resident, said she found that the enthusiasm outweighed the discomfort and inconvenience.
“It was fantastic,” she said. “The crowd was huge. It was hard getting to your gate ... but everybody just seemed to be feeling so good about it. They weren’t pushing and shoving and bumping.”
"I’m speechless,” she added.
Still, some with tickets complained about being turned away at the gate and not making it into the inauguration.
Obama acknowledged the diversity of his audience in an inaugural address that emphasized the need for maintaining the values of the past while remaining committed to innovation. It was an occasion where older generations, who wondered if they would ever see an African-American president in office, convened with a younger generation that had mobilized to achieve Obama’s election.
Avi Edelman, CC ’10 and Columbia Democrats Communications Director, said he was excited to see so many young people who had been inspired by Obama get involved in the political process alongside “a lot of people who have been waiting a lot longer for a day like today than we have.”
“It’s really inspiring to see so many people engaged and excited and talking about not only Barack Obama, but what he stands for,” Edelman said.
Attendee Myrna Fawcett, BC '70, was impressed with the speech, which she saw as “pragmatic, very directed,” and “showing a new change.” As a D.C. resident, Fawcett found the theme of the campaign—that every vote counts—to be inspiring, especially for a city that primarily lacks representation, and where votes only count in presidential elections. “He appears to be saying with reality that we have a right to vote.”
As police blockades lifted from downtown streets, the mood was celebratory. As vendors tried to hock t-shirts and buttons and informal parades erupted, a small pack of environmentalists with the Organic Consumers Association dressed up as polar bears and danced down the street with a boom box on wheels. Group member Alexis Boden-Mayer said that while her group was hopeful for Obama’s presidency, it was also critical of some of his policies and appointments, particularly that of his energy chief.
Lauren Salz, BC’11 and executive director of the Columbia University College Republicans got up at 5:15 a.m. to secure a good seat—a spot she lost when a crowd stampeded into the handicapped section.
“I think the most amazing thing was looking behind me at the Mall ... and there were just so many people, and they were all waving American flags,” she said. In addition to the music and getting a chance to ice skate on the frozen-over Reflection Pool, Salz said she enjoyed the rare opportunity to see political speeches in person.
“I had a good time. We were actually pretty close to the Capitol, we could hear everything really well,” she said. “I could see with my binoculars.”
CORRECTION APPENDED: A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Obama as mentioning a “collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for war.” The quote was a “collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.” Spectator regrets the error.