What is the past through which “these things”—”honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism”—are constituted? I approach this question indirectly, by reading the Inaugural Address alongside “A More Perfect Union,” Obama’s groundbreaking speech on race. Together, these addresses indicate how Obama negotiates among three senses of the past. The first sense, the one best represented by the Inaugural Address, is the idea of a hallowed past that draws upon American civic and religious traditions. The democratic implications of such an invocation, I contend, depend on the ways in which it intersects two other notions of pastness. Following legal scholar Robert Westley, I call these notions “the past as prologue” and “the past as bygone.”Read the rest of Remembering Obama.
Lawrie Balfour is Professor of politics at the University of Virginia. She is the author of The Evidence of Things Not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy and the forthcoming Democracy’s Reconstruction: Thinking Politically with W. E. B. Du Bois.