WASHINGTON — With hundreds of Elis looking on in Washington and many more gathered in dining halls and common rooms across Yale’s campus, Barack Obama was inaugurated Tuesday as the 44th president of the United States of America.
Even before Obama took the stage, chants of his name reverberated here from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol steps. The somber tone of Obama’s address marked a departure from his previous speeches, as the 47-year-old former senator from Illinois stressed the gravity of America’s economic and political woes. Still, Obama offered a sense of optimism, reflecting on the unmatched potential of a country with strong national values and a legacy of international leadership.
“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real,” he said. “They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met.”
Obama said he will move the country in a new direction in its approach to foreign policy, stressing the need for “sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.” He concluded his remarks with a rallying cry to the American people, calling for national unity and responsibility in the face of crisis. Recalling the heroism of this nation’s founding fathers, Obama said the United States will surmount its current struggles — no matter how bleak the outlook may seem.
“Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end; that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations,” he said.
With Obama’s closing words still ringing in the crisp winter air, the crowd erupted into shouts and applause.
For those standing on the National Mall, the energy at the inauguration was electric. Said Charlotte Thun-Hohenstein ’12: “It actually does make me want to cry when I think of all the patriotism and the hope.”
‘SCREAMING AND WHISTLING’
As busloads of Yale students joined an estimated 2 million people on the Mall to witness the inauguration of America’s first African-American president, many other Elis packed into dining halls, butteries, common rooms and classrooms on campus with a similar objective.
In Commons dining hall, students filled nearly every seat, watching the big screen intently as Obama prepared to take office.
“When he got sworn in, they started screaming and whistling and standing on the chairs,” said Dee Emery, a dining hall employee.
At the Afro-American Cultural Center — where about 80 people of all ethnicities gathered in the basement with Thai food and a large projection screen — Obama’s young daughters were greeted with coos, while Obama himself elicited a shout of “He’s so sexy!”
When Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California asked those present here in Washington to stand, the Yalies at the Af-Am House stood, too.
“We knew that everyone is really excited about the historic importance of Barack Obama,” said Adzua Agyapon ’11. “A lot of us were here watching the election, and we [at the Af-Am House] were hosting a last push, so we thought it was important to witness this together.”
Beyond the confines of the Yale campus, the atmosphere elsewhere in New Haven during the inauguration was no less jubilant. Inside City Hall, nearly 60 people gathered in the aldermanic chambers to watch the day’s events on two adjacent television monitors.
During the national anthem, attendees stood up and sang aloud. During the prayer, they shut their eyes. And during Obama’s speech, they applauded and cheered.
“I came to watch the ceremony in City Hall because I wanted to be a part of the community,” New Haven resident Marjorie McFarlane said. “It was a new beginning. The country was together, united, and on board. It was a powerful moment that I’ll never forget, and it was just like the day he won.”
At the Dixwell-Yale Community Learning Center, a half dozen eighth graders from the Talented and Gifted program joined their teachers to watch the inauguration via streaming online video. Next door, students filed out to retrieve their lunches, but as soon as Obama approached the podium to be sworn in, two students dashed into the room, joining their classmates in eager anticipation.
“As young as I am, I never thought I’d live to see an African-American president,” eighth grader Ebonie Routh said to her classmates. “Oh my goodness.”
‘SORT OF MUNDANE’
Still, not all students had unconditionally positive reactions to Obama’s swearing-in.
Hannah Corrigan ’09, watching in the Silliman College buttery, said she was somewhat disappointed by the ceremony.
“This was sort of mundane,” she said. “In my mind he’s been president for months. I just thought I’d be more excited.”
Rachel Schiff ’10, co-coordinator of Yale’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Cooperative, said one sour moment of the ceremony was the invocation by pastor Rick Warren, who has been criticized for his stance on homosexuality.
Yale’s Republican students joined their left-leaning classmates for inauguration viewings but did not host an event of their own, said Tom Abell ’10, the president of the Yale College Republicans. He added that he will reserve judgment until Obama is able to transform words into action.
“I think I may speak for many when I say Republicans will take a wait-and-see approach,” he said.
Some students almost did not get the chance to see anything at all, when the screen in the Trumbull College dining hall failed to stream the ceremony properly for about half an hour. As noon approached, frustrated students began to trickle out, heading to the basement instead. But before Vice President Joe Biden took his oath of office, the screen was up and running, though the picture remained choppy.
‘WE’VE COME A LONG WAY’
The excitement was not restricted to the young — rather, professors and administrators alike were caught up in the day.
In the common room at Luce Hall, the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies and the Political Science Department hosted a screening of CNN’s coverage of the ceremony, followed by a panel in which three professors offered commentary on the event. About 300 people filled the room, spilling out into the hallway, and the auditorium on the floor below was also filled to capacity, said the director of the MacMillan Center, political science professor Ian Shapiro, who organized the event.
Throughout the viewing, people broke into spontaneous applause. During the panel after the ceremony, the screen showed a shot of former President George W. Bush ’68 waving good-bye to the cameras. The crowd waved back, as laughter rolled through the room.
“It’s something you want to experience collectively,” said history professor Beverly Gage, one of the panelists at the event.
Top administrators — including Assistant to the President Nina Glickson, Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer and Associate Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93 — gathered in the ornate Corporation Room in Woodbridge Hall, with many of those in attendance decked in red, white and blue. A life-size cardboard cutout of Obama was positioned in the entrance to welcome spectators.
At the New Haven Public Library, the 80 people packed into the building’s basement acted as if they were at the ceremony itself. When Obama took the stage, those in attendance pulled out cameras and cell phones to capture a snapshot of the new president as he appeared on the television screen.
Unlike the younger audiences on Yale’s campus, many city residents said they recalled the history that made Obama’s pledges so important.
“I expect the ending of the second gilded age, the ending of favoring of the rich, the ending of war mongering, of disdain for gay people, Jews and atheists,” said New Haven resident Bonnie Cohen. “I’m 64 — old enough to remember the signs that said ‘no dogs, no Jews,’ ‘colored’ and ‘whites’ on the water fountains. We’ve come a long way.”
Raymond Carlson and Divya Subrahmanyam reported from New Haven, and Zeke Miller from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Stephannie Furtak, Raphael Shapiro, Eileen Shim, Snigdha Sur, Carol Te and Vivian Yee in New Haven.