Mark Blumenthal | January 21, 2009
I'm at my desk again after four days spent with my family taking in the events and emotion of the inauguration of President Obama and struggling to get my head back into the relatively mundane details of public opinion polling. So I hope you will forgive a momentary personal aside on that topic, because it does lead to an important point about the expression of public opinion in our representative democracy.
Most readers know that although I worked as a Democratic pollster/consultant for much of my career, I tried to cover campaign 2008 as a non-partisan. My spouse, however, is a physician with no background in campaign politics and who, like so many of you, was politicized and energized as never before by Obama candidacy. And we have two young children (a 6-year-old girl and a 4-year old boy) who, for much of the last year, had little choice but to absorb their parents' somewhat dissimilar obsessions with the 2008 campaign.
My spouse wanted to experience and celebrate the inauguration, and I happily tagged along. We also took our children to both a "day of service" activity at RFK stadium on Monday and (with the help of an old friend who shared tickets) as much of the inaugural parade as they could tolerate given the subfreezing temperature.
My head still buzzes with the images, emotion and symbolism of this past weekend, especially the opportunity to see so much of it through my children's eyes. We had two very fortunate experiences. First, we got to see the Obamas emerge from their limousine just a few yards away at the corner of 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue (both kids immediately recognized the new president -- "Mommy! It's him!!" -- though my daughter was a little disappointed that Malia and Sasha stayed in the limousine).
Second, miraculously, we later managed to flag down a taxi a few blocks away. Sitting in the cab, my son let loose with the quote of the weekend: "WOW - it was a cool day! I got to see the president and he waved at me AND I got to ride in a taxi for the first time!"
All that aside, one of the most memorable and inspiring aspects of the weekend for me had nothing to do with the parties, the concert, the parade or the speeches. It was the powerful statement made by so many ordinary people who braved the cold simply to stand nearby and bear witness, and the intense emotional connection that so many felt to this new president and what his election represents. Looking at the photos of the million-plus that stood on the National Mall (including the incredible Geo-Eye satellite imagery), I can't help thinking of this anecdote reported by the Washington Post yesterday about a Cleveland family that drove overnight to D.C. and emerged from a downtown subway station at or before 4:00 a.m.:
Their plan: "Get in, get out, get home," Holdsworth said. They had no tickets and only a vague idea what to do once they arrived at Metro Center. They will return home tonight.
"We really weren't expecting to get very close," he said.
Most standing on the mall could see little or nothing of the swearing-in with their naked eyes. My own experience at Sunday's concert, captured by my phone/camera, was that even the "jumbo-tron" screens were often not so jumbo depending on where you were standing. Yet most, like Holdsworth, had little expectation of getting close enough to see much. They just wanted to be there.
The crowd on the Mall was certainly no random sampling of public opinion. Most were very strong supporters of the Obama-Biden ticket who had the desire or means to experience the inauguration personally. Yet their presence reminds us that ordinary people were the most important players of the weekend. Their sheer numbers and their desire to bear witness evokes the central idea underlying the constitution that Obama swore an oath to protect and defend: The power of our government flows first and foremost from "the people."
Here we obsess over polls that strive to objectively measure public opinion. The crowds this weekend remind us that public opinion matters because, ultimately, all power in our government flows from it.