The crowd that jammed the National Mall on Monday for President Barack Obama’s second inaugural may have been smaller and less ebullient than the 1.8 million people who attended his historical first swearing-in, but by no means was it somber.
The euphoria of the frozen 2009 ceremony was replaced Monday with what several attendees described as an enthusiasm tempered by the political battles of the last four years, and supplanted by a satisfaction that Obama survived a bruising election to confound foes who vowed to make him a one-term president.
“Last time it was so emotional. You were shoulder to shoulder with strangers who were feeling the same emotion,” said Cathy Mayers, 60, of Pittsburgh. “This time it’s satisfaction, hope, and still pride.”
Sitting in a wheelchair catty-corner to the stage where Obama took the oath of office, 91-year-old Roy Battle called Monday’s event “the fulfillment of a dream we never expected to be filled.”
Battle was of several Tuskegee Airmen – the legendary African-American World War II aviators who helped pave the way for an integrated U.S. military – to witness the nation’s first African-American president sworn in for the second time.
“We’ve made progress, but I know there’s more progress to be made,” he said. “And Obama stands for excellence. He’s overcome adversity.”
Battle and Mayers were among countless onlookers who returned to the National Mall to watch history unfold a second time with Obama’s second inauguration.
But for Juliann Hess of Westin, Fla., and others, Monday’s ceremony was a chance to catch what they missed in 2009.
“The first time I was in Florida and my girlfriend was here and she was razzing me for not being here,” said Hess, 52. “Now that I’m here, I understand. It’s beautiful here and the hope continues.”
Dexter Johnson of Centralia, Ill., didn’t attend 2009’s inaugural because his birthday came five days after Election Day in 2008.
“It is my first inauguration, so I do not know what is going to happen, but I am sure it will be hectic,” Johnson said.
Not as hectic as Obama’s first inaugural, when Washington’s hotels were packed, space on the National Mall was jammed, and demand for inauguration tickets was high. Despite bone-numbingly cold temperatures, an estimated 1.8 million people flocked to the Mall that day.
District of Columbia officials were expecting between 600,000 and 800,000 to attend this year’s ceremony, smaller than 2009’s swearing-in but larger than most second-term inaugurations. A precise crowd estimate wasn’t available Monday, but Washington’s Metro transit system told The Washington Post that more than 308,000 riders had used its rail system by 11 a.m.
From a platform on the west front of the Capitol, Obama looked out onto a flag-waving sea of people, a diverse but predominantly African-American crowd that stretched as far as the Washington Monument. One moment caught by the television cameras seemed to capture the awe of the freshly-sworn-in president of the United States witnessing the massive throng that had gathered to celebrate him.
The formalities over, Obama, his family and others were retreating into the Capitol for the traditional lunch when, just inside the doorway, he turned back and paused, staring out toward the Mall as if really seeing it for the first time that day, his attention undistracted by words streaming across a teleprompter.
Vice President Joe Biden and other luminaries continued on into the Capitol. But for several seconds, the president just gazed out at the crowds, his expression one of wonder.
“I want to take a look one more time,” Obama said, his words captured by a nearby microphone. “I’m not going to see this again. It’s beautiful.”
Out on the Mall, Kennis Wilkins, a Williamson, N.C., resident and Obama campaign volunteer who attended the 2009 inaugural, said he returned because “I feel like the second term for Barack Obama is the one that’s really going to count.”
Wilkins’ daughter, Erica Noble of Raleigh, N.C., agreed.
"This is the culmination of everything that he went through and everything that we went through during the campaign," she said. "We put our hearts, our souls and our money into this because we believe in Barack Obama and his policies."
But not everyone was cheering Obama. As the president spoke, many in the crowd could hear a man shouting what sounded like a protest to abortion.
"What about the children?" said the man, who had climbed up a ladder into a tree near the Capitol. "America has been warned."
Around 1 p.m., police officers were able to talk him into coming down from the tree. He was led away in handcuffs with onlookers chanting, "Arrest him."