NPR logo Obama: The First Truly American President

Obama: The First Truly American President

Can you have a narrative more American than Obama's? Dennis Brack/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Dennis Brack/Getty Images

Considering all the price gouging going on with hotel rooms in D.C., Barack Obama's inauguration is apparently history in the making. But as we observe this epic, monumental, never-been-done-before achievement, what exactly are we celebrating?

If Toni Morrison is to be believed, William Jefferson Clinton, "white skin notwithstanding," was our first black president. As Morrison's got both a Nobel and a Pulitzer, I for one am not going to argue with her. And Obama, being biracial, is only black in the strictest sense.

It's not even correct to say that Obama is the first minority to hold the highest office in the land. Every white guy ever elected is co-owner of that distinction. As far back as the first census in 1790 white men were just 41 percent of the population and have been trending downward ever since (32 percent in 2007).

So, if it's not really about race or minority status, maybe the big deal we feel churning in our collective guts is something as bold as this: that Barack Obama is our first truly American president.

Can you have a heritage more American than Obama's? The literal marriage of the immigrant and native. Born in our most diverse state. One without an ethnic majority, but where people of mixed race make up some 20 percent of the total population. There is nothing about Obama's background that isn't truth to the tired saw of the American melting pot.

And can you have a narrative more American than Obama's? In the most Horatio Algeresque fashion, he lifted himself up from the from a swamp of food stamps and went on to study at the best universities.

Despite his Ivy League pedigree, Obama skips his shot at easy millions, becomes one of those much maligned "do nothing" community organizers, bucks the system, fights the old school and ends up president. Frank Capra in his heyday couldn't commit to film a more finely tuned ode to Yankee gumption.

And would it have been possible to have had an election more American than Obama's? One that put the exclamation point on our long, slow crawl to civil rights. Not arrived at — as in decades and centuries past — through the righteousness of passive resistance, the threat of violence or the lever of those darn "activist" judges.

It was just people by their own free will choosing to shut out the white noise of racial bias and flip the switch for the person they thought was the best for the job. Surely that's as American as mom's apple pie or dad's buddies buying you a baseball team.

Every president to hold office has espoused some version of Americanism — the truths that we hold self-evident, even when those truths are not always in evidence. But for all their grand rhetoric and mostly good deeds, none was able to seal the deal on the trifecta of equality, plurality and socioeconomic ascendancy.

Obama has.

Obama is the more perfect union. He is a house united. Obama is the New Generation and the hot light of a dawn that goes way beyond clever talk of morning in America.

Quite simply, quite plainly, just by virtue of his being, Obama is America. The first true American to lead our nation.