Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States Tuesday in front of almost two million people, the first African-American to hold the office. Obama, a former lecturer at the Law School, spoke to the largest crowd ever to gather in the capital, calling on Americans to work together to restore the nation’s prosperity.
The University community also watched, as over 1,300 students, faculty, and staff gathered in Mandel Hall to celebrate the inauguration, with the crowd overflow spilling into Hutch Commons and the McCormick-Tribune Lounge.
Professor Bert Cohler brought his Self, Culture, and Society class to the screening, lecturing briefly in the seats as CNN followed the Obamas’ arrival at the White House.
“The inauguration is a perfect example of what Durkheim is talking about,” he said. “We’re connecting social theory to the reality of social life. Race, class, ethnicity in American life, all of these are brought together in one week.”
Other professors canceled class. Fourth-year Becky Brehl said her professor called it “cruel and unusual” to hold class during the inauguration. Campus dining and maintenance paused temporarily so that staff could watch the beginning of the ceremony.
By 10:45 a.m., Mandel was nearly full, with students arriving in chattering groups and standing in the aisles, many wearing Obama shirts.
Obama’s entrance onto the Capitol’s West Front podium earned a standing ovation from the hall, with further cheers sounded for Aretha Franklin’s arrival in a giant bow-topped hat.
The rendition of “Simple Gifts” was interrupted by the announcement that though he hadn’t yet taken the oath of office, Barack Obama had just become president, as the Constitution sets the switchover at noon Eastern time regardless. The crowd erupted in cheers, and again—for a full minute and a half of applause—a few minutes later when the president was finally sworn in.
Students lent a U of C commentary to the inaugural address that followed, cheering the new president’s assurance to “restore science to its rightful place” and his addition of “nonbelievers” to the list of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu citizens.
Fourth-year Cristina Perez said the best thing about the gathering was “just sharing the moment—seeing everyone in Mandel getting up together, even though we didn’t have to stand up,” she said.
“It feels less like a person being elected president, than that the nation is changing,” fourth-year Joe Herbert said.
After the ceremony, many left, but a crowd of 50 to 60 people stayed to hear commentary on the new administration from professor Robert Gooding-Williams and DuSable Museum historian Charles Branham.
Branham reflected on the breakthrough for civil rights, recalling his childhood in segregation-era America, “the fears, the cartoons, the headlines linking the NAACP to Communism,” he said.
The inauguration was “as much a ritual about who we are and where we think we want to go as about getting a new president,” he said.