Jan. 20, 2022

An Inauguration to Remember

An Inauguration to Remember

January 20, 2009. After a divisive campaign, Barack Obama is inaugurated as America's first African American president.

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Cold Open

It’s July 27th, 2004. Inside the Fleet Center in Boston, Massachusetts, the keynote speaker of the 2004 Democratic National Convention is about to take center stage.

As music blares through the hall, a crowd of thousands watch on the jumbotron as a young, unknown state senator from Illinois takes the stage.

Barack Obama is currently running for the United States Senate. His unexpected landslide victory in the Democratic primary earlier this year caught the attention of party leaders; and it inspired John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for president, to invite Obama to deliver this keynote address. But outside of Illinois, Obama is largely unknown. Tonight, he hopes that will change.

"OBAMA: Thank you so much. Thank you….

On behalf of the great state of Illinois, crossroads of a nation, land of Lincoln, let me express my deepest gratitude for the privilege of addressing this convention."

Obama worked on this speech for weeks. He jotted down ideas on scraps of paper. He read and watched past keynote addresses for inspiration. But he struggled to find the perfect words to frame his message until he remembered a phrase he once heard his pastor use: “the audacity to hope.” Remembering this, the speech quickly came together. And tonight, standing in front of a crowd of thousands, Obama delivers the fruits of his labor.

"OBAMA: It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper -- that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family. E pluribus unum: "Out of many, one."

Many in the audience begin to chant Obama’s name.

"CROWD: Obama! Obama! Obama!"

"OBAMA: In the end, in the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?...

I’m not talking about blind optimism here…

I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores...

the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too."

"CROWD: <<cheers>>"

"OBAMA: Hope -- Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!"

Prior to his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, most Americans had never heard the name, Barack Obama. But his 17-minute speech, made up of just 2,297 words, captures the imaginations of many, and it paves the way for Obama to rise from Illinois Senator to President of the United States; a journey that will culminate five years later at Obama’s inauguration on January 20th, 2009.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 20: An Inauguration to Remember.

Act One: Obama’s rise

It’s January 3rd, 2008 in a hotel suite in Des Moines, Iowa.

Former President Bill Clinton lounges in his room. The 2008 election officially began this morning with the Iowa Caucus, the first contest in the presidential primaries. But Bill isn’t worried about the outcome. His candidate of choice is his wife, current New York senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. The former first lady is widely considered the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.

But Bill's moment of relaxation is interrupted when Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager walks in the room with some bad news: Hillary will finish the night in third place, far behind the winner; a young, charismatic Illinois Senator named Barack Obama.

Bill is furious. He wanted his wife to attack Obama and her other competitors in the lead-up to the primary, but members of her campaign insisted she not go negative. Now, Bill believes, she’s paying the price.


The Clinton campaign is shocked by Obama’s victory. National polls showed Clinton beating Obama in Iowa by as many as 33 points. Many in the mainstream media felt her victory was inevitable. But somehow all that changed. And the results of the second primary, in New Hampshire, do little to improve Clinton's position.

She wins the state, but by less than 3%. Both Clinton and Obama walk away with an equal number of delegates. Clinton needed a clear victory, not a draw. So she is beginning to worry that her husband was right to insist she go on the attack.

Since his appearance at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Obama’s national profile has continued to rise. His campaign knew they couldn’t take on the Clinton fundraising machine when it came to the usual high-end Democratic donors, so they focused on smaller donations from people all across the country. This grassroots approach created a groundswell for Obama that paid dividends in Iowa and New Hampshire. Heading into the third primary in South Carolina, the Obama campaign continues their grassroots ground game. But they also start to reach out to prominent Democrats for even more support.

The Clinton campaign is also on the hunt for high-profile endorsements. One in particular: the storied Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. Both Clinton and Obama believe Ted Kennedy’s endorsement is essential to rallying all Democrats to their side.

But when former President Bill Clinton calls Ted Kennedy in hopes of securing his wife the Senator's support, Ted is unhappy. He accuses the Clinton Camp of stirring up racial tensions.

Ted points out that an unnamed Clinton advisor was quoted as saying that people who support Obama want him to be their “imaginary hip black friend.” On the same call, Ted points to multiple examples of Clinton surrogates acting in ways he finds racist. Bill does his best to assure Ted that the Clinton campaign does not condone racist rhetoric. But Ted isn’t convinced. Clinton doesn't yet have his endorsement.

On January 21st, 2008, days before the South Carolina primary, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton face off in a heated debate. On stage, Clinton tries to make use of comments Obama made earlier in the week about President Ronald Reagan. As the two candidates spar, Hillary suggests that Obama supports Republican economic policies. As Obama launches his defense, things turn ugly.

"OBAMA: I'll provide you with the quote. What I said was, is that Ronald Reagan was a transformative political figure because he was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interests to form a majority to push through their agenda, an agenda that I objected to. Because while I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart. I was fighting these fights"

"CLINTON: You talked about Ronald Reagan being a transformative political leader. I did not mention his name."

"OBAMA: Your husband did."

"CLINTON: Well, I'm here. He's not. And...(Applause)"

"OBAMA: OK. Well, I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes. (Applause)"

A few days after the debate, Ted Kennedy calls Barack Obama and tells him he has the Kennedy endorsement. Two days later, Obama wins the South Carolina primary by almost 30% of the vote.

Obama rides this momentum all the way to victory in the Democratic primary. On June 7th, 2008, Hillary Clinton suspends her campaign, bringing an end to one of the closest Democratic primaries in history. Obama secures more delegates than Clinton but wins the popular vote by only one-tenth of one percent.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side of the contest, another long-shot candidate has risen to the top of a crowded field. Arizona Senator John McCain. In order to win the White House, Barack Obama will first have to get the best of the man they call: “The Maverick.”

Act Two: McCain

It’s January 20th, 2008, and presidential hopeful John McCain holds a press conference at the Charleston Place Hotel in South Carolina.

Just yesterday, McCain won the South Carolina Republican primary. Today, as he addresses the press in the room, he makes it clear just how significant that victory was.

"JOHN MCCAIN: And as we reminded people last night, and will probably several times more, that the candidate that for the last 28 years, that has won South Carolina has been the nominee for the Party."

McCain is right to believe in tradition. After South Carolina, he goes on to win a string of primaries before eventually securing the Republican nomination. But while McCain prepares for the coming national campaign, Barack Obama struggles to overcome personal attacks.

During the Democratic primary, rumors began to circulate that Obama was not born in the United States. Though the Clinton camp denied ever questioning Obama’s citizenship, these rumors were linked to Hillary Clinton's campaign. Regardless of its origins, by the summer of 2008, the “birther” conspiracy, as it’s come to be known, is plaguing Obama’s candidacy.

But the Obama Campaign doesn’t focus on defending his citizenship. Instead, they focus on amplifying Obama’s message of “hope and change” online. Throughout the campaign, Obama’s digital marketing team spreads Obama’s message across multiple social media platforms. His strong digital presence gains Obama a level of pop-culture celebrity presidential candidates don’t often enjoy.

By contrast, John McCain, a veteran Senator of 20 years, views Obama’s popular stardom as proof the first-term senator from Illinois is not ready to lead. McCain publicly questions Obama’s experience level, and his campaign releases attack ads comparing Obama to a reality TV star. But it does little to pierce Obama’s armor. So to win the election, McCain knows his campaign needs a jolt. 


On September 3rd, 2008, McCain’s brand new running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, steps on stage at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.

"SARAH PALIN: I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town. I was just your average hockey mom and signed up for the PTA. I love those hockey moms. You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick."

Many pundits believe McCain made a mistake picking Palin, a Washington outsider with little experience. But many Republicans like her “hockey mom” persona, and her commitment to conservative values. Soon, a certain “Palin-mania” sweeps the nation. But it doesn’t last long. Shortly after the Republican convention, the national conversation turns to something far more serious.


It’s September 25, 2008, in the White House Cabinet room.

President George W. Bush sits across the table from congressional leaders from both parties, including John McCain and Barack Obama. Bush has called this meeting because the country is in a crisis.

Ten days ago, the Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy; the biggest ever in US history. The firm's failure set in motion a chain of events that will bring the global economy to its knees and leave millions of Americans without jobs or homes. In response, Senator McCain temporarily suspends his campaign. It was McCain who called President Bush and urged him to set up this emergency meeting.

President Bush hopes that these two congressmen can agree on a bill to stave off financial disaster. McCain hopes to use the occasion to lead the forces of compromise and to show the American people he is ready for the presidency.

But at the White House, it’s Obama who shines. Obama takes control of the meeting early on. He highlights portions of the proposed bill Democrats and Republicans already agree on, then offers ideas on how they can come together where they still disagree. One Republican in the room will later say, “if you closed your eyes, you would’ve thought Barack Obama was already president.” The national press picks up the story, and soon the McCain argument that Obama isn’t ready to lead seems hollow.

But the national press seems to think someone else might not be ready for national office. Hours after he leaves the meeting at the White House, CBS airs an interview between journalist Katie Couric and his running mate, Sarah Palin.

"COURIC: You've cited Alaska's proximity to Russia as part of your foreign policy experience. What did you mean by that?

PALIN: That Alaska has a very narrow maritime border between a foreign country, Russia, and, on our other side, the land boundary that we have with Canada. It's funny that a comment like that was kinda made to … I don't know, you know … reporters.

COURIC: Mocked?

PALIN: Yeah, mocked, I guess that's the word, yeah.

COURIC: Well, explain to me why that enhances your foreign-policy credentials. 

PALIN: Well, it certainly does, because our, our next-door neighbors are foreign countries, there in the state that I am the executive of."

Throughout the campaign, Palin was willing to attack Obama in ways McCain would not, embracing “birtherism” and suggesting Obama has ties to terrorists. McCain consistently refused to use this line of attack and tried his best to distance himself from Palin’s comments. But after the Katie Couric interview, McCain can no longer escape his running mate’s words.

Her comments show a deep lack of foreign policy knowledge, and they make many independent voters question if she is fit to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.” Later in life, John McCain will not disparage Palin, but he will admit that he regrets not choosing a different running mate. Because heading into the final stretch, the path to victory for Barack Obama seems clear.

Act Three: Inauguration

It’s January 20th, 2009, inauguration day in Washington D.C. 

Today, Barack Obama is about to take the oath of office, just like every other American president has done.

It’s a frigidly cold afternoon. Obama stands across from Chief Justice John Roberts on the west front of the Capitol Building. He places his hand on a Bible held by his wife, Michelle—the same Bible used by President Abraham Lincoln at his first inauguration. Obama’s breath freezes in the air as he recites the oath of office—but Justice Roberts blunders, and makes an error while administering the oath.  Roberts prompted, "That I will execute the Office of the President to the United States faithfully." misplacing the word “faithfully.”

The oath is stipulated by the Constitution itself, and, “out of an abundance of caution,” Sometime later, after the inauguration ceremonies, Chief Justice John Roberts administers the oath a second time, ensuring that Barack Obama is officially the 44th President of the United States and the nation’s first African American president.

In his inaugural address, Obama talks about the challenges facing the nation including the financial crisis. But just as he did on the campaign trail, he tries to strike a chord of hope:

"OBAMA: Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. 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 delivers his speech before a crowd of as many as 1.8 million people who fill the National Mall, stretching from the Capitol to beyond the Washington Monument. Among those in attendance is Senator John McCain.

Just yesterday, while making a speech at a bipartisan dinner, Obama honored McCain, calling him an “American hero”. At the same dinner, McCain returned the gesture saying "I am very grateful to the president-elect… for allowing me to play a small role in the inauguration of the 44th president… even if it wasn't the one I had in mind a few months ago.”

In the several years after their hard-fought campaign, the two rivals maintain civility and mutual respect. In 2018, Senator McCain will succumb to brain cancer. One of his last acts will be to ask Obama to deliver his eulogy. At McCain’s funeral, Obama sums up his fondness by saying, “John and I could not have been more different… But for all our differences… I think John came to understand the long-standing admiration that I had for him.” That admiration and mutual respect was on full display when John McCain attended his rival’s inauguration on January 20th, 2009.


Next on History Daily. January 21st, 1793. During the French Revolution, The King of France, King Louis XVI, is executed by guillotine.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico and Steven Walters.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.