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To "Choose Our Better History": Assessing the Obama Presidency in Real Time

From: American Quarterly
Volume 63, Number 1, March 2011
pp. 179-189 | 10.1353/aq.2011.0012

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The most recent presidential election was not only historic in its outcome, but it was one in which the very idea of American history took a central place in national political discourse and stagecraft. This was perhaps never clearer than in the waning days of the election when candidate Obama appealed to Americans to "choose our better history." It is a phrase at once inspiring, beautifully turned, and deeply vexing. For while it performs very obvious cultural and political work, it is not at all clear what it actually means, to which singular history it might refer, or to whom that history belongs. Obama first used the phrase in the final days of the campaign as the candidates made their last furious treks across the country. Speaking in Ohio on October 27, 2008, Obama concluded: "In one week we can choose hope over fear, unity over division, change over the status quo … In one week we can come together as one nation, one people, and once more choose our better history. That's what's at stake." Rhetorically, the reference to the close of Lincoln's first inaugural address was quiet but undeniable, summoning "the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

When Obama spoke that day in Ohio, as well as in subsequent campaign stops and on the prime-time national broadcast that aired just before the election, the purpose of his phrase "to choose our better history" was specific, stark yet subtle in its allusions to the past, to Lincoln, and to the Civil War. It framed the stakes of the election by urging an imaginative linking of history's Blue and Gray with today's Blue and Red states in a critique of the neo-sectionalism, strategic divisiveness, and cynicism of the politics of the last decade. Obama's call pointed toward shared purpose and common ground, sincerity and moral depth in politics, and related them not only to Lincoln's era but also to the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., and the quest for a realized Beloved Community. His language simultaneously nodded to a lurking "worse history" of the reactionary Republican southern strategy that kept rearing its head and the redrawing of the political map that began in the 1960s, key historical underpinnings of the red-state-blue-state shorthand. Pulsing through his speech and appeals to better history and better angels was another color binary: black and white. Its just-beneath-the-radar discussion of racial division, fear, and the possibility of change gave the political critique greater heft and stirred the urgency of his words, even as this aspect remained largely unspoken.

The connecting of Lincoln and Obama was inevitable, given the latter's race and adopted home state of Illinois and the election's confluence with the Lincoln bicentennial. It is important to note, however, the degree to which this comparison was promoted by Obama himself and the lengths to which the campaign and then the inaugural team went to cement in the American imagination a redemptive progress narrative from Lincoln through King to candidate and then President Obama. The list of Obama's explicit references to Lincoln, in rhetoric, image, and the more difficult to quantify ambient registers of tone and gravitas is long, culminating in the inaugural weekend staged at the Lincoln Memorial and the oath of office that transformed the Lincoln Bible into the Lincoln-Obama Bible. Layers of argument and symbolic meaning were shifted by Obama's very presence, as well as in the new patterns he stitched together from the sounds, words, and images of popular historical narratives. While King and the 1960s were consistent referents, it was the 1860s and the president rather than the activist that remained most overt in Obama's symbolism.

On the other side of the election, the phrase "to choose our better history" held on, appearing in a new and more open-ended way in the inaugural address, ennobled by its real estate in that speech and embracing a longer narrative of patriotism and progress reaching back to the Founders. "The time has come," Obama argued, "to reaffirm...

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