Barack and Michelle Obama at his second inaugural. Credit: Flickr/Adam Fagen.
There were passages in Barack Obama’s second inaugural address that sounded like a European prime minister from a Labor or Social Democrat party addressing his Parliament. Obama had a whole laundry list of progressive proposals. Some were explicit:
“Care for the vulnerable and protect people from life's worst hazards and misfortune” through “Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security”; “respond to the threat of climate change”; make sure that “our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. … our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else … no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote”; “find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants.”
Some of the progressive program was implicit:
Protect the environment with “the technology that will power new jobs and new industries” (presumably funded generously by government); “revamp our tax code” (presumably to make the rich pay more); “reform our schools and empower our citizens with the skills they need” (presumably with more public funding for education); keep “all our children … always safe from harm” (presumably through gun control laws).
Yet Obama could not actually come across, on Inauguration Day, as a progressive prime minister. The occasion has traditional rules, written and unwritten, that bind any president, no matter what his or her political views. There must be pomp and ceremony, strict protocol, splendor and grandeur. There must be patriotic praise of America, religious praise of God, and ample assurance that the two are inextricably connected.
In other words, the occasion must be a coronation, and the star of the show must act, to a considerable degree, not as a prime minister but as a king. While the particulars of the ceremony are uniquely American, its underlying structure can be traced back to royal rituals of the third millennium BCE, when a new king received his crown and scepter (typically from priests) amid the same kind of pomp and splendor.
One scholarly opinion explains these ceremonies in terms of a worldview that saw the state as an island of order surrounded by a threatening sea of chaos. The ruler and the axis connecting him to the gods were the linchpins of order. So the demise of a ruler was an immensely threatening event. The new ruler had to be installed according to an elaborately structured ritual to protect the vulnerable state from tipping over into chaos.
The new ruler’s job was the same as the old ruler’s: to continue that protection by living every moment of his royal life according to the traditionally prescribed, ritualized rules. The state was a 24/7 dramatic production -- a “theater state.” As long as the heroic lead actor performed perfectly, the order of the state (and, in most versions of the “theater state,” the world) would be preserved.
A more skeptical scholarly view holds that the real intent of the coronation ceremony was to overawe the inhabitants of the state as well as its potential enemies, to impress upon them the immense power wielded by the new ruler. The same intent motivated the daily ritual and grandeur of the royal court after the new king was installed, this theory holds. If everyone was impressed enough with the king’s power, they would obey his commands and refrain from any kind of resistance. Thus the prevailing status quo -- the existing order -- would continue undisturbed.
So both theories arrive, by different routes, at the same conclusion: The pomp and splendor symbolized a guaranteed assurance of permanent order in the face of an ever-present threat of chaos. Maintaining the status quo was the essential -- and essentially conservative -- purpose of the “theater state.”
During the presidential campaign I wrote about the debates as an example of the “theater state.” I suggested one lesson from the survival of this ancient tradition in our democracy: Americans want their president to be, in some sense, like a king, offering “the reassurance that comes from seeing and hearing the same ritualized words and behaviors, over and over again, in a well-acted political theater.”
The presidential inauguration is more obviously a direct descendant of the ancient “theater state.” It shows more clearly that the president must be both prime minister and king. No matter how progressive he may want to be in the former role, his royal obligations force him to be the guarantor of the status quo, hence essentially conservative.
When Obama concluded his inaugural address with an appeal to the citizenry to “shape the debates of our time - not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals,” he offered a fine example of the dual role that he must play.
The call to lift voices is a pragmatic prime minister’s tactic: Mobilize public opinion in support of the ruling party, so that the opposition will see more political risk than benefit in blocking the PM’s program.
The invocation of what is “ancient” and “enduring” also has a pragmatic purpose: to win over wavering centrists to at least some parts of his program. But no matter what a president’s political calculations may be, he or she is compelled to use such language on inauguration day. It is the obligatory royal language fit for the occasion of a coronation ritual. It is inescapably conservative language, because the conservatism inherent in the role of the king is inescapable.
Barack Obama may be comfortable with that inescapably conservative element of his job, or he may be quite unhappy about it. After four years I still can’t tell. In any event, though, he is stuck with it because, in a democracy, government must give the people at least some of what they want.
Thomas Jefferson thought that his victory over the Federalists in 1800 dealt a decisive defeat to the desire for monarchy in the United States. He made his inauguration an extremely modest affair to symbolize that point. So far, at least, it seems that Jefferson was wrong.
Yet precisely because this is a democracy citizens can shape the outcome of the political process. Indeed, as Obama said, we “have the obligation to shape the debates” -- and, he might have added, the inaugurations -- “of our time.”