The gargantuan platform affixed to the U.S. Capitol has been growing for weeks, but worriers seem convinced that when Barack Obama steps onto it for his second inauguration, it just won’t feel the same.
“No, there isn’t quite the excitement there is with the first one,” allows Buffy Cafritz, the Washington doyenne who has hosted inaugural parties since 1984. But then again, “I can’t think of a second inauguration that was as exciting as the first,” she says. “You know the man. You know his policies. It’s normal.”
Over at the Presidential Inaugural Committee headquarters, chief executive officer Steve Kerrigan argues that the second time around is equally wonderful — just different. Those two balls will hold nearly as many people as the 10 balls did last inauguration, he explains patiently. “We’re almost doubling the size of the Commander-in-Chief’s Ball.”
But still there’s this irritating perception that it’s all a setup to a letdown. It’s one we’ve been struggling with since the beginning of our country: The meaning of the second inauguration. How to summon the energy to do it all again.
Once more (with feeling).
Fizzles for the Founders
The first inauguration of our first president happened in New York. There were cheers, a 13-gun salute, and an eloquent address about the meaning of the office and the future of the United States. The day was merry. The nation was optimistic, and it was brand, brand new.
Four years later, George Washington was elected again. That inauguration happened in Philadelphia. His speech was 135 words. It said, basically, “Here we are again. Now I will take an oath.”
“Things were getting a little more complicated” in the country, says Susan Dunn, a history professor at Williams College. “He was tired.” Exhausted, even. America was not the fresh daisy it once was, and he hadn’t wanted a second term.
Washington knew what the country has spent nearly 250 years learning: Second inaugurations are America renewing its wedding vows to the same man — the ceremony might be great, but you can’t ignore what you already know about the groom: He snores, sniffles and forgot to pay the electric bill last month.
Thomas Jefferson’s second inauguration was also a little tired. There was no way to live up to the hype of the first, which was America’s first political party swap and thus a huge historic deal. His second victory was completely predictable, so expectations could be met but hardly be exceeded.
By contrast, James Madison’s second election, in 1812, had been bitterly close, and bitterness was on display at the inauguration. John Marshall, the chief justice tasked with the swearing-in, reportedly smirked throughout the ceremony, showing his displeasure with the president. Madison gave a lackluster address — he was a bad public speaker and regularly bungled social situations.