At 11:38 a.m. Saturday, a 10-car train carrying Barack Obama pulled out of 30th Street Station Philadelphia, taking the next American president on the symbolic final leg of his historic journey to the White House. The trip, meant to echo one that Abraham Lincoln took to Washington after his election 148 years ago, was yet another reminder that Obama, who has come to personify the American future, is deeply conversant with its complicated past.
“We are here to mark the beginning of our journey to Washington,” Obama told a small group of about 200 supporters at a relatively intimate event inside the grand art-deco station before setting off. “This is fitting because it was here, in this city, that our American journey began. It was here that a group of farmers and lawyers, merchants and soldiers, gathered to declare their independence and lay claim to a destiny that they were being denied.”
Resonating throughout that observation is the understanding that his election represents a step toward resolution for claims African Americans have had on the American conscience, for other destinies denied and promises unmet because of prejudice.
“…If we could just recognize ourselves in one another and bring everyone together—Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, north, south, east and west, black, white, Latino, Asian, and Native American, gay and straight, disabled and not,” Obama said, “then not only would we restore hope and opportunity in places that yearned for both, but maybe, just maybe, we might perfect our union in the process.”
As the train rolled along, people lined the streets along the tracks; stood on overpasses and in closed railroad stations to wave at the incoming president. Despite the blistering cold, others stood on the roof of their garages, on their decks, in their backyards and on empty lots to wave at the train with American flags of all sizes.
The first stop was Wilmington, Delaware, hometown of the vice-president elect, Joe Biden, who boarded the train for the ride to Washington. “This is no ordinary train ride,” Biden told the crowd before introducing Obama. “This is a new beginning.”
Margie Maynard, a Wilmington resident who arrived for the 1 p.m. evening train at 8:30 a.m., said it was -4 degrees with the wind when she arrived. But nothing was going to deter her. “It’s once in a lifetime,” she said. “Change is about to come, and it can only get better.”
Along the way, more than one sign read “Happy Birthday Michelle.” The future first lady, Michelle Obama, turned 45 on Saturday, and the crowd in Wilmington broke into a spontaneous rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Along with their families, Obama and Biden were traveling with about 40 people who Obama met on the campaign and were invited to be his guests at the inauguration.
Obama promised that these people and their stories will be central to his administration’s action and its decision making. “Theirs are the voices I will carry with me every day in the White House,” he said. “Theirs are the stories I will be thinking of when we deliver the changes you elected me to make.”
At stop after stop, Obama exuded an optimism that does not feel quite right in these economic times, but he has mastered the language of the American myth and more than anything else he is selling hope.
“The American Revolution did not end when British guns fell silent. It was never something to be won only on a battlefield or fulfilled only in our founding documents,” Obama said. “It was not simply a struggle to break free from empire and declare independence. The American Revolution was—and remains—an ongoing struggle in the minds and hearts of the people."
In Baltimore, thousands waited all day in the cold for the late afternoon event. “I will not be traveling alone,” Obama said. “I will be taking with me some of the men and women I met along the way, Americans from every corner of this country, whose hopes and heartaches were the core of our cause; whose dreams and struggles have become my own.”
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.