Attendees Monday at President Obama’s second inauguration described a more muted and orderly celebration, with some of 2009’s enthusiasm tempered by four years of hard fought battles with Congress. But there were reminders that especially for African Americans the re-election of a black president signifies a decisive historical movement away from the country’s long and often violent racial turmoil.
“The first inauguration felt like a real collective community, people were so energized,” Jasmine Stringer, who traveled from Minneapolis, told TPM. “I hate to say it, but we live in a divided country.”
Cyrus Sussman, 20, said that overcoming roadblocks in Congress was his biggest hope for a second term.
“You see polls where Congress is less popular than cockroaches and colonoscopies,” he said. “I’m tired of us being the laughing stock of the world. I can’t pinpoint one thing I want done in his second term, I just want things to get done at all — for people to be able to compromise.”
But if Obama’s difficulties passing his agenda lent a tougher edge to people’s assessment of his second term prospects, one didn’t have to look hard to find reminders of the historic nature of his presidency either.
Gail Wright Sirmans, an attorney, was at the inauguration escorting survivors of the 1921 race riots in Tulsa, Okla., one of the worst instances of mob violence against African Americans in U.S. history, in what was then a thriving community.
Among the visitors joining her was Dr. Olivia Hooker, 97, who made the trip to Washington from White Plains, N.Y. Hooker was driven from her home in Tulsa as a child by armed white attackers only to live to see a black man elected president.
Obama’s second inaugural address evoked the struggles her generation suffered through to make his election possible.
“They’re excited,” Sirmans said. “Dr. Hooker told us that to have this once was amazing, to have it a second time is wonderful.”
Toya Haley, an attorney from Austin, Texas, said she still believed Obama could achieve great things over the next four years.
“I’m just as excited as I was his first inauguration,” she said. “I came with an open mind and a heart full of hope and promise then, and I think we made great progress.”
For the most part, the crowd was packed with Obama supporters. When Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), who ran against Obama and Biden as the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, appeared on the giant screens scattered across the Mall, a loud boo drifted up to the area around the Capitol steps.
But not everyone who came to the Mall was there to praise the new president. A single abortion protester scaled a tall tree right behind the seated ticket holders and shouted about “the holocaust of babies” under Obama. Other protest groups included opponents on the president’s left, complaining about the widespread use of drones.
Donna Livingston, 66, an interior designer in Los Angeles, said she flew out to Washington to witness a presidential inauguration for the first time in her life.
“I wanted to tell my grandkids I was here for this moment,” she said. “When I told my nine-year-old grandson Jack that I was going he asked if I could get him an autograph [from Obama]. I said I’ll try.”
Additional reporting by Evan McMorris-Santoro and Sahil Kapur.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.