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Obama's second inauguration: What's the point?

As the buzz surrounding President Obama’s second inauguration grew, so did talk over the point of celebrating the ceremony for a second time. Some asked whether this was a necessary tradition, or simply a costly affair that was inappropriate for such tough economic times.

Yet an estimated one million people chose to travel to the nation’s capital to see the ceremony on Monday—often standing from a distance where nothing could be seen—and those that I spoke with had no trouble explaining to me why the ceremony was important to them.

“You know I think it’s the function of the democracy,” said Greg Siggons, who traveled to DC from San Francisco to take part in the weekend’s events. “It’s a peaceful transfer of power. We elected this guy a few months ago and he’s going to put his hand on a bible, and say a couple words, and he’s the new president. It’s powerful.”

Many felt that this year’s inauguration was important for the same reasons it was in 2009.

“It is historic,” said Bernard Wilson, a veteran from Woodbridge, VA.  “This is the second time for Barack Obama, and he is our first black President, so I’m here to support him and to support freedom that he’s promoting throughout the world.”

Others were also drawn to this year’s ceremony for its historic implications, especially those who couldn’t make it to Obama’s first inauguration.

“I wasn’t able to come in 08 and just decided that I had to be here this year,” said Terry Johnson from Des Moines, IA.

“That’s exactly why we came,” added Kathy Brantley from East Chicago, IN.

Yet the experience was undeniably different than it was four years ago. Whereas the first inauguration was characterized by enormous sense of hope for the future, the emotions expressed by this year’s crowd were closer to that of relief. Susan, who was here in 2009, came back for round two, this time bringing her family from Seattle.

“This time I don’t see so many people choked up, but just happy,” said Susan. "I think people are so relieved that Obama won a second term.”

The crowds that channeled into the national mall on Monday were still surging with enthusiasm and excitement, but this year their optimism was tempered by a more realistic understanding of the political struggles that lie ahead.

Will Claywood, from London, expressed a desire to hear Obama present a focused agenda that was less about changing Washington, the theme in 2008, and more about getting things done.

“He’s got quite a task ahead of him,” said Clayton. “I’m hoping he will not be all hope and feelings but maybe tell us what he’s beginning to do.”  

Obama heeded this call with a speech that laid out an ambitious liberal agenda that addressed policy issues including the role of government, the threat of climate change, immigration, gay rights, and equal pay for women. The speech’s emphasis on social equality and unity was reflected in the diversity of people that were gathered together in the mall Monday morning. This aspect of the event was part of what Kathy Jones, from Toledo OH, finds so valuable about the inaugural experience.

Jones said, “We bring so many people from so many walks of life, so many ethnicities, so many different faiths, and we all come together and celebrate the transfer of power. It makes my heart skip a beat.”

For the self-selecting crowd that attended the event, the ceremony and the speech were considered an overwhelming success, and the value of a second inauguration was affirmed.  It was an opportunity for the optimists still out there to revel in celebration for a couple of days before Washington is re-shrouded by the dark clouds of political battles and ‘cliffs’ that lie ahead.

And of course, who would miss the opportunity to see Beyoncé even lip synch the national anthem?

WAMC News intern Sally Mairs is a senior at Williams College majoring in English Literature and hoping to pursue a career in journalism.