Obama’s second inauguration: ‘It still feels necessary to be there.’

Bahia Akerele and Edward Neufville III met at a ball celebrating President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Four years later, they are married with a son, Edward IV. The whole family plans to attend this year’s inauguration together. (Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

Crammed on an overcrowded Mall on a cold January day? Been there.

Watched America’s first African American president take the oath of office? Done that.

Inauguration mouse pad featuring the Obama family? Got one.

Willing to do it all over again? Oh yeah.

“There is no way I’m not going to be there again,” declared Patricia Leake, a restaurant management consultant from Raleigh, N.C., who began planning her second trip to an Obama inauguration the day after the November election. “I don’t expect it to be as historical as the first one. But it will be exciting, and it will show the faith we still have in him.”


Aaron Jenkins is pictured with the U.S. Capitol in the background. He escorted the inaugural poet during the 2009 event and was on the platform when Obama spoke. (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The kickoff to President Obama’s second term is expected to be a significantly smaller affair than the monumental launch of his first, when nearly 2 million celebrants flooded the Mall, the parade route and dozens of balls and parties.

But hordes of people who made it in 2009 are getting back into their puffy coats and texting gloves to see history repeat itself. Some just want to cheer their candidate after a hard-fought campaign. Some are coming to revel in the added validation that comes with being the country’s first reelected African American president. Others are bringing family members who were too young to appreciate it before — and who might not get another chance.

“Who knows when we will have another black president,” said Leake, an African American who will have four nieces with her on the bus from North Carolina this time. “I want them to witness this so they will remember it and work to make sure that it does happen again.”

Few expect a replay of the euphoria of four years ago, when strangers embraced and tears froze and impossibility became history when the words “I do solemnly swear” rang out across the hushed multitudes.

But after 48 months of economic misery and political turmoil, many are seeking even an echo of the day that was repeatedly characterized as the one “I never thought I’d live to see.”

“That was the most miraculous, exciting moment that we — as a collective — had” made happen, said Alice Thomas, a Howard law professor. Her own struggles to be a witness to that moment (and “not to a TV screen”) included hoisting her then 70-pound, 11-year-old son Ajani onto her shoulders, in spite of the arm she had broken at an inauguration party the night before.

Now splint-less, she plans to return, although she doesn’t have tickets and the crush of out-of-town friends and family who appeared last time has not materialized. It will be an easier, if less momentous, swearing in.

But E. Ethelbert Miller, a Washington author and poet, says Obama’s second inauguration may be the more significant of the two as a sign of the country’s growing comfort with a black leader. By winning decisively, especially in the midst of the economic downturn, the president avoided the whispers of “fluke” and dismissals as a one-term wonder.

“As an African American, what you really got happy about was you realized white people could go and elect a black president not just once, but twice,” Miller said.

Bahia Akerele and her husband, Edward Neufville, will certainly take their 2-year-old son to Obama’s second inauguration. After all, they met each other at the first one.

Akerele, 39, sees it a chance to hail the triumph of the man over the stereotype.

“This time I think people looked at him and saw the model of a family man, a father. They like his work,” she said this week as she sorted inaugural gowns at On the Purple Couch, the high-end consignment store she owns in Silver Spring. “I am definitely going to take my son to be in that space.”

Darcy Sawatzki is taking her daughter, although the 5-year-old’s interest is strictly limited to the younger Obamas. “She just wants to see Sasha and Malia,” said Sawatzki, a Takoma Park health communications consultant. “She keeps asking me when I will set up a play date with them.”

Sawatzki and her husband have been to every inauguration since moving from Florida in 1997. They like the democratic ritual, the peaceful transfer of power, the sense of new beginnings. She remembers the big hats and tall boots of the two George W. Bush celebrations, and the “Purple Tunnel of Doom” where some of her visiting family from Nebraska found themselves trapped four years ago, unable to get to the inauguration despite having tickets.

But Sawatzki’s voice breaks when she recalls some of the powerful scenes from the last one. “It was so inspirational. They really make me feel patriotic.”

Of course, there has been an addition on the Mall since the last inauguration. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial now sits by the Tidal Basin and will be a powerful venue on Monday. That Obama is taking his second oath on the King holiday will be an irresistible draw for many. And the closing of a historical loop.

“When President Obama stands at the lectern and speaks, he is speaking into the past 50 years to Dr. King,” said Aaron Jenkins, 31. And Dr. King “50 years ago spoke in the future to Barack Obama.”

Jenkins had a prime seat four years ago. As a staffer to Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), he escorted poet Elizabeth Bishop to the podium. Now, as the program director for Operation Understanding DC, a youth education program, he plans to return (without the VIP access) with a group of high school juniors.

“It still feels necessary to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning,” he said. “It still feels necessary to be there.”

For some, this will be a chance for an inaugural do-over. Those who failed to make it through the overwhelmed screening points last time have another shot Monday. Washington filmmaker Aviva Kempner had to turn back in tears four years ago, her useless ticket to the Capitol Grounds in hand. This time, she has an invitation to the viewing stand at the city’s Wilson Building.

“I’m not going to try to get through any you-know-what tunnel,” she said.

Michelle Silver, a 50-year-old truck driver from Enfield, N.C., has never stopped regretting that the new job she took a week before the first Obama ceremony kept her from making the trip. She watched that day on a truck-stop TV in Salisbury, N.C., crying along with a group of other drivers.

And she remembers the table of older white male customers who pointedly turned their backs.

“Since President Obama was elected, I don’t even run my CB [radio] anymore,” she said. “There’s just so much negative stuff out there.”

Silver promised herself that if the scene was ever repeated, she would be there to see it. Monday, after scraping together nearly $1,200 for five package seats, she will be on the Mall with two of her grandchildren, a niece and her sister.

And, for Silver and hundreds of thousands of others, that will absolutely be a big deal.

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.
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