Fifteen years ago, Barack Obama was inaugurated as America’s first Black president
Fifteen years ago today, the United States of America achieved something that it had not done in its more than 230-year history: a Black president was sworn into office.
Former President Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother, took the oath of office on January 20, 2009 to become the 44th U.S. commander in chief and forever change the course of American politics.
The skies were clear on that Tuesday and temperature just below freezing when Obama gave his inaugural address before the largest audience for any event staged in the nation’s capitol. As the first president born in the 1960s, his entrance into the White House marked a generational change, but most notably, it was a turning point for race in America.
In his inaugural address, Obama delivered a message of hope and inspiration as the country grappled with a crippling recession that he would ultimately lead the nation through and engineer a turn around.
“We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America,” said Obama. Leaning into the complicated racial history of America, the commander-in-chief called the nation’s “patchwork heritage” a “strength, not a weakness.”
None were more moved by Obama’s inauguration than Black Americans, giving them a new sense of American pride and patriotism as they witnessed something they never knew they would in their lifetime: A Black man as the leader of the free world.
Former Black staffers of Obama’s 2008 campaign and administration recalled their fondest memories of that day, telling theGrio it was a moment in time they would never forget.
“We worked on the inauguration day in and day out because we knew that it was going to be historic,” said Heather Foster, who worked on Obama’s 2008 presidential inaugural committee, including helping to craft the inaugural benediction delivered by Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery.
Despite record low temperatures, 1.8 million people descended on Washington, D.C., to experience the historic inauguration.
“I don’t think any inaugural committee had to figure out that level of ticketing and security,” said Foster, who later served as an advisor in Obama’s White House Office of Public Engagement.
Despite an unusually cold day in D.C. with wind chills near 15 degrees, the massive crowd of attendees stood outside for hours to witness the star-studded ceremony and subsequent festivities, including the “People’s Ball” that was designed for disadvantaged people who could not afford to attend the inaugural events.
“I don’t think it mattered,” Foster said of the low temperature. “People realized we may not see anything like this again.”
“As young as we were, I think that everybody understood the significance of the moment that we were in,” said Karen Richardson, who worked as a young staffer for Obama as a U.S. senator and later his campaign and administration. “I think there are a few moments in history where you have the opportunity to experience the things you’ve read out in history.”
Richardson told theGrio, “Even if you were standing so far away from the stage, just being a part of the moment is life-changing. It’s something that I don’t think anybody can ever forget.”
Despite the economic downturn in which roughly 700,000 jobs were lost each across a seven-month stretch between 2008 and 2009, there was hope in the cold winter air.
“It was so joyful to experience this sense of gathering. There was just a level of excitement,” recalled Michael Strautmanis, who served as chief counsel and the director of public liaison and intergovernmental affairs on Obama’s presidential transition team. “[There] were smiles on everybody’s faces … people from all different ages, all different backgrounds.”
On the heels of a historic and successful presidential election, Strautmanis, who later served as chief of staff in the White House Office of Public Engagement, said there was a sense of profound achievement.
“It was about [President Obama] and his vision … and what people wanted him to accomplish, but it was also about us,” he told theGrio. “What we did and what we believed and chose and what we could accomplish.”
Remembering the temperature that day, he said, “You’re not going to miss that, despite the cold.”
At the time of the inauguration, Strautmanis said that he struggled to “take it all in.”
“I just wanted to imprint every color, every feeling, every word,” he said. “Both to never forget it, but also to use it as fuel for the work ahead.”
Obama’s inauguration was emotional for others.
Michael Blake, who worked as the Iowa deputy political director for Obama’s 2008 campaign, recalled riding to the inauguration with staff and the family of Martin Luther King Jr.
Blake, then 27 years old, said, “I really didn’t know what to say to the King family.”
When the bus pulled up to the U.S. Capitol, members of the King family turned to extend their gratitude to the Obama staffers who helped make the historic day possible.
“They said, ‘Thank you for what you did for us,’” recalled Blake, who later worked as associate director for the White House Offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs.
“We kind of started bawling out crying because the King family is turning to you, and a Black man is about to become president,” he remembered. Years later, Blake was elected to the New York State Assembly. “That has always stayed with me.”
Strautmanis, who is now vice chair of the Obama Foundation, was emotional when recalling what the moment meant for him personally and his family.
“Most of the family that came to the inauguration stayed with us … on couches in sleeping bags. I actually literally think a family member slept in a sleeping bag in our closet,” he recollected.
“As we were leaving to all go down to the inauguration, I looked around our home and … I was just so grateful for everything that the people who cared about me and sacrificed to allow me to do.”
He continued, “I just thought about all the sacrifices that were made by people who I knew, and I didn’t know, and I knew I couldn’t let them down.”
Reflecting on what the Obama administration achieved while in office, Foster noted that the White House leveraged record-low interest rates and most notably passed the Affordable Care Act, which led to a record number of Black Americans gaining access to health care.
Foster said the country also had conversations around race that it hadn’t before.
“There were huge issues with policing that we never even discussed as a country. Too often, things would happen, and it was swept under the rug,” she added. “There’s been a true ability as a minority in this country to have our issues heard, talked about, and discussed.”
However, former Obama staffers lamented that the ushering in of America’s first Black president also led to racial and political backlash.
“There seemed to be sometimes a growing resentment of people not understanding what that means for their lives, or if their life didn’t change in the way that they thought it would,” Foster said.
Fifteen years later, Richardson said America’s politics have become more divisive.
“The difference now is that it’s become a lot more personal,” she said. “It’s not just about policy differences, but it’s become something a little bit darker.”
Blake said there is an “overt, intentional prejudice and racism,” both in rhetoric and policy, that is “stronger than it’s been since the 60s.”
“It is not just a backlash to President Obama winning when he did,” he said. “It is the fear of lost power and control where we are watching in real time a coalition of voters and people who, in their mind, Black and brown people winning is them losing, as opposed to everybody winning together.”
He added, “When energy is being spent to ban books as opposed to ban assault weapons, something is not working.”
However, Blake said because of the success of Obama, young Black leaders have continued to emerge in American politics, including a host of Black mayors in cities across the country.
“You should feel good when you can see a Justin Bibb in Cleveland or Melvin Carter in St. Paul or Tishaura Jones in St. Louis, or Cherelle Parker in Philly,” he said.
Though the story of race in America continues to be written as the election of its first Black president, Obama administration alumni believe his legacy continues to inspire what is yet to come.
Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend and advisor to both Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama, said in a statement to theGrio that his inauguration “signified that the United States stood for the power of ordinary people with hope, and a willingness to work hard together, to change our country.”
“This ideal drives the work of the Obama Foundation today as we help the next generation of leaders bring change home,” said the foundation’s CEO.
Foster said of Obama’s legacy, “For Black Americans, it is this incredible example to point to where we can achieve, despite all of the hurdles that have been given to [them].”
She added, “I think there is still an incredible story of hope.”
Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.
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