The One seizes control in messianic style

Inaugural images designed to emphasize Obama’s theme of populist social renewal


By Mike Dorning

Chicago Tribune


WASHINGTON – From lines of flag-waving Americans along the railroad tracks to a statue of Abraham Lincoln gazing down on a huge outdoor concert and hundreds of thousands filling the Mall for the inauguration, Barack Obama is projecting images designed to reinforce themes of his candidacy – and build his political strength in the Oval Office.

Along with a sense of historic moment and the possibility of renewed national unity, Obama’s aides have sought to convey above all one idea: His presidency is not the triumph of an individual politician but the embodiment of a huge, bottom-up social movement.

Whether or not the choreography achieves its goal and Obama succeeds with his ambitious policy agenda remain to be seen. But throughout the inauguration, his aides have tried to build his political strength by shaping the pictures that will linger in the minds of millions of Americans.

In effect, they have seen the occasion as an opportunity to encourage viewers’ sense of identification with the new president and his goals, and at the same time subtly warn potential opponents: Opposing Obama is to oppose a vast popular movement.

From the outset of his long-shot candidacy, Obama’s political team has shown a clear understanding of the value of crowds in generating excitement and defining Obama in the public mind.

Nowhere will that understanding be more apparent than when the 47-year-old president-elect becomes the first black man to raise his hand to take the oath of office as president on Tuesday. The vista before him may be as striking as the one on the platform.

Amid the stone and marble monuments of the National Mall, authorities expect the largest-ever gathering of the American people, a populist moment in a hallowed place that will be broadcast around the world. Two million people may be present.

The size of the inaugural crowd is not serendipitous. Almost as soon as Obama was elected, his aides announced that the entire Mall would be opened to the public for the inauguration. They arranged for Jumbotron TVs and encouraged supporters to converge on Washington.

Thousands of chartered buses from around the country are bringing people to the capital.

And the days leading up to the inauguration buttressed the image of a broad-based movement. A train ride to Washington produced scenes of supporters along the right of way reminiscent of Robert Kennedy’s funeral train in 1968, as well as Lincoln’s journey to the Capital in 1861.

Similarly, several hundred thousand attended the outdoor concert at the Lincoln memorial that officially opened the three-day celebration. The stage was set up so that the giant statue of the Great Emancipator would dominate the background on millions of television screens.

Here the imagery sent a subtle mix of messages.

It connected Obama to one of his most revered predecessors. And it underscored with minimal racial overtones the historic nature of a president whose election can be viewed as the fulfillment of the long struggle for racial equality than began with Lincoln granting freedom to slaves.

Yet the venue also spoke subtly to those who saw his rise to the White House in terms of the civil rights legacy, evoking the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.”

For members of the committed Left, the memorial also recalled the massive protests there against the Vietnam War.

In both cases, the event offered memorable images of fellowship around the Reflecting Pool.

An inauguration presents a rare moment to shape public perceptions of a new president at the outset of his administration. Three out of four Americans plan to watch the event, according to an ABC News poll released Monday.

But a mass showing at the inauguration also serves as a demonstration of support that delivers a warning to those in Washington who would thwart Obama’s agenda.

And with an eye to the future, the Obama team, which effectively used big events as organizing tools during the campaign, has used the weekend to gather e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers from supporters for updates on events. The contact information can be used later for other purposes.

Likewise, the Obama team has stressed events that could nurture its grass-roots organization and stir participation among those not in Washington by incorporating locally driven satellite events.

That included the National Day of Service that included events around the country and a “Neighborhood Ball” broadcast by ABC which the inaugural committee encouraged supporters to replicate with celebrations in their hometowns.

Synchronized with the train trip Saturday that began the inaugural festivities, Obama sent out an e-mail message to supporters asking them to join him in an organization that will work to “bring about the changes we proposed during the campaign.”

That organization, which advisers have said will include paid staff in congressional districts around the country and will work on behalf of his legislative program, is a potential stick.

But the inaugural events have focused on promoting hope for unity.

Obama marked the eve of his presidency with a series of bipartisan dinners, including one honoring his campaign rival, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

In commemorating King’s birthday, Obama marked King’s legacy through the broad theme of national service rather than recalling the conflict of the civil rights movement.

In a nod to the environmental movement, planners promoted Obama’s inaugural as “the greenest inauguration,” boasting of valet bicycle parking, hybrid Lexuses, invitations printed on recycled paper and even one ball that will feature a green carpet made of recycled products.

In all these details, the scenes on the Mall echo signature Obama images of mass gatherings rare in American politics.

He accepted the Democratic nomination before 84,000 people at Invesco Field in Denver. He capped a tour of foreign capitals with a speech to 200,000 in Berlin.

And rock concert-like arena rallies characterized his campaign.

(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune.