Four years ago, Doug Oden was so excited he couldn’t stay home in San Diego. He donned three pairs of socks, long underwear, a ski mask, and a new pair of gloves and flew 2,500 miles to the frigid U.S. Capitol to join 1.8 million others as witness to Barack Obama’s first inauguration. “I looked ridiculous and still froze. But I just had to be there,” he recalled this week, still thrilled at the memory.
But when President Obama takes the oath of office again on Monday, Oden won’t be there. This time, he’s staying home, he told National Journal. “I was so glad I was there. But I’ve decided that other people should have that privilege this time.” Now 62, Oden is former president of the San Diego NAACP and remains in awe of the history Obama represents. While Oden’s absence doesn’t reflect any diminishment in his support for the president, it serves as a reminder of how different the 2013 ceremonies are from those historic events of 2009.
As Lena Dunham noted in her controversial campaign ad for Obama in October, the first time is special. There is always a big drop-off in crowd size and excitement for a second inaugural; Obama is not immune to that reality. But this is different from what we have seen in second inaugurals, perhaps because the first Obama swearing-in stands so alone in American history. What happened in 2009, after all, was without precedent. After an unbroken string of 55 inaugurations where white descendants of Europeans took the presidential oath, a black son of Africa had his hand on the Bible.
Not surprisingly, Oden and other civil-rights veterans felt compelled to be there. “It was just mind-blowing,” he says. “We kept asking ourselves, is this really possible? Is this really happening?” But more surprisingly, he was joined that day by many political opponents of Obama who were also moved by such a long-awaited American milestone. Even many Republicans were swept up in the optimism after the 2008 election, hoping that Obama could make a difference. Millions of Americans bought into the notion that he was somehow above partisan politics.
Four years later, we all know better. “Now, we know he is a politician. More gifted than some, not as gifted as others, but at the end of the day, he is a politician,” said Terry Golway, director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics, and Policy in New Jersey. “He is president of the United States. He is not a secular saint.” Richard Parker, a lecturer at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, adds, “He is now a known quantity, which he wasn’t before.” Before, Obama was so new to the national scene that many weren’t sure about his leanings. Now, we know where he stands and whom he stands with. And we know that he is a Democrat, a partisan. He did not usher in a new era.
“Now, we know he is a politician. More gifted than some, not as gifted as others.” —Terry Golway, Kean University
The country is also in a much different place than it was four years ago. Amid the talk of fiscal cliffs and what seems to be a fresh crisis every day, it is easy to forget just how real economic calamity was on Jan. 20, 2009, how palpable the worry was, how deep the concern for the very survival of the financial system. In November 2008, the nation lost 802,000 jobs; in December, 619,000 more disappeared; and in January 2009, 820,000 more people were thrown out of work—a series of staggering blows to the economy. Only five days before the inauguration, a report showed that mortgage foreclosures had almost doubled in 2008, with 861,664 families losing their homes.
It was, Golway recalled, “a moment of absolute panic,” raising the stakes for Obama’s inaugural address and making it critical that he find a way to give hope to an anxious nation. David Wrobel, an expert on American history at the University of Oklahoma, said it was “just an awful time.” To him, the mood of this inauguration is quite different. Instead of the deep crisis of 2009, Wrobel sees “a general kind of fatalistic feeling,” a recognition that while things have gotten better, they’re not great. And with that has come the realization that there are no quick fixes.
No longer do Americans believe that an outsider is going to ride in and change Washington. They have been through too many battles between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Four years ago, the combination of a Democratic president working with a Democratic Congress suggested a universe of opportunity. Conversely, today, people have no illusions about how a Democratic president and a Republican House coexist. Obama has not shown himself a master of working with a hostile Legislature. And it’s hard to cheer for gridlock. Additionally, no matter how much Obama would like to cast himself as representing change, he is the incumbent—and incumbents are the status quo. When he takes the oath, Parker says, Obama will represent “continuity and an unrealized dream.”
Promises have also gone unrealized. Among the most excited at Obama’s inauguration were foreign leaders who had grown weary of following President George W. Bush’s lead and believed that Obama represented a new approach to the world. Four years later, with the prison at Guantánamo still open and many of the Bush policies unchanged, they know better.
“Last time, John McCain said he was running against a celebrity,” Golway says. “That’s very much what Obama was when he took the oath of office. He was this transformative figure and a celebrity. Well, today, a little of the glitter has gone from that.”
This article appears in the January 19, 2013, edition of National Journal Magazine as The Thrill Is Gone.