Then, a happy, even joyous crowd approaching 2 million — the largest in Washington history — gathered to hear the inspirational new president with the funny name and the distinction of being America’s first black president.
On Monday, a cheerful but much smaller crowd — officials even revised downward their estimates of attendance to around 500,000 to 700,000 — gathered on the Mall to witness a public swearing-in that was in itself an anticlimax. Because the constitutionally mandated swearing-in date of Jan. 20 fell on a Sunday, the oath was first administered at the White House with only Obama’s immediate family in attendance and Chief Justice John Roberts presiding.
The inaugural also fell on Martin Luther King Day. Yet Obama, oddly, paid only cursory notice to King or the symbolism of the occasion.
The 2013 Obama is now a battle-scarred chief executive, hardened by the political realities of governance that he was unable to change. The 2009 Obama no doubt believed in the logic of his arguments and thought that, plus the depth of his conviction and fervor of his supporters, would carry the day. But he was quickly disabused of that notion.
Perhaps their impossibly high expectations and his cool, detached manner kept Obama from getting his due, even from his own supporters. As the smoke of political battle clears, he sees his first term as one of significant accomplishment, including: “universal” health care; a bailout plan that his supporters contend (contrary to the evidence), “saved” the U.S. auto industry; and the extraction of U.S. forces from one war (Iraq, which had finally been won thanks to the Bush “surge” that Obama opposed) and the beginning of our extraction from another.
Perhaps the most glaring bit of unfinished business is that of balancing America’s books, reconciling generous social promises — such as care of the sick and aged, and the education of our young — with our ability to pay for them. The problem is not insoluble, but it will require a seriousness that Obama has yet to display. For all of his high-blown rhetoric, he has yet to offer any suggestions on how to keep those entitlement programs from sliding into bankruptcy.
Inaugurations are not empty ceremonies. They mark over two centuries of a peaceful change of power. If first inaugurations represent soaring — and generally unfulfilled — hopes, second inaugurations mark a momentary cessation of political hostilities.
The Obamas had a day to enjoy their triumph. Now it is back to the messy, gritty business of politics and a politically difficult agenda of action on the budget, immigration reform, gun violence and other issues.