The Washington Post

At second inauguration, Obama relishes the smaller moments

President Barack Obama paused to take a final look at the crowd as he entered the Capitol on Monday after taking the oath of office for his second term. (The Washington Post)

The second time seemed to charm him.

The choreography of President Obama’s ceremonial inauguration Monday was nearly identical to that of his swearing-in four years ago: church, motorcade to the Capitol, invocation, oath, address, luncheon, parade, dancing.

This time, however, the man taking the oath of office was an experienced president, not a first-term senator. And Obama seemed determined to relish the rituals and have himself some fun.

In his public remarks, he spoke with conviction. From the Capitol steps, he asserted his intention to bind the nation closer together. He was sober in addressing members of Congress at a luncheon.

But the president also found joy in the smaller moments. He blew kisses as he walked the parade route with his jubilant wife, Michelle, beside him. He bobbed his head and grooved watching a drill group from Iowa pass by and waved the shaka sign to the marching band from his Hawaiian high school alma mater. On the dance floor later, he nuzzled his wife’s hair and crooned in her ear.

Transcript and commentary on President Obama’s second inaugural address.

There was a majesty and gravity to Monday’s proceedings, but this time, unlike four years ago, Obama knows what his office demands, as well as the limits on its power. His life is not in transition like it was then. He is settled.

He seemed to recognize that the next time the country pauses to inaugurate a president, the Obamas will be moving out of the White House, departing the city by helicopter and heading home. After the ceremony on the Capitol steps, as the president headed inside, he turned back and stopped.

“I want to take a look, one more time,” Obama said. “I’m not going to see this again.”

He stood still and looked out at the panorama of flags waving and people, hundreds of thousands of them, cramming the Mall and chanting his name.

It was as if he wanted to engrave the picture on his mind.

And he seemed to savor such moments throughout the day.

When the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” he turned and broadly winked at his daughters, Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11.

Myrlie Evers-Williams, a civil rights activist whose husband, Medgar Evers, was assassinated in 1963 in his Mississippi driveway, delivered the invocation. She spoke of being challenged by adversity — “For every mountain, you gave us the strength to climb,” she said — and Obama, his eyes closed in prayer, lifted his shoulders and took a deep breath.

“Amen,” he said at the end of her prayer.

A man behind the president shouted, “Hallelujah!”

When Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. delivered the president’s oath at 11:50 a.m., Obama flubbed a word, “the office of president of the United Sta—.” But it didn’t matter. He had recited the official oath correctly a day earlier, on Jan. 20, the inauguration date mandated by the Constitution. (His daughter Sasha already had congratulated him, too: “You didn’t mess up,” she told him in the Blue Room. )

Then, once Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced him as “the 44th president of the United States,” Obama looked down and smiled. He gathered himself and pushed his chin up, understanding his role in addressing the nation far more clearly than he could have the first time around.

The president paid tribute to his forebears “who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone, to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”

He swore his oath on two Bibles, one used by Abraham Lincoln in 1861 and one used by the young pastor Martin Luther King Jr. At the request of the King family, the president and the chief justice wrote inscriptions in the Bible.

Earlier, at a morning service at St. John’s Episcopal Church, the Rev. Andy Stanley said in his sermon that Obama is the “pastor in chief” because of how he helped the nation mourn after last month’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“What do you do when you’re the most important person in the room? You are the decision-maker,” said Stanley, of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga.

Four years ago, the senator from Illinois took the oath of office brimming with aspiration to bring bipartisan harmony to a broken Washington. Since then, he has struggled through crises whose scope he could not have fully appreciated beforehand: an economy in free fall, a debt crisis and the deaths of troops. Storms and mass shootings have brought sudden devastation.

“I know that former president Carter, President Clinton, they understand the irony of the presidential office, which is the longer you’re there, the more humble you become, and the more mindful you are that it is beyond your poor powers individually to move this great country,” Obama said at the lunch inside Statuary Hall at the Capitol.

And, while he has been criticized for being standoffish, he left his plate of lobster tails, bison and butternut squash to work the room. He walked to every table and shook every hand, Democratic and Republican, perhaps trying to signal a new day.

“I recognize that democracy is not always easy, and I recognize there are profound differences in this room, but I just want to say thank you for your service,” the president said, “and I want to thank your families for their service.”

Obama spent the morning with his top campaign advisers close by and the day surrounded by his family. Those most responsible for guiding the president’s reelection bid — Stephanie Cutter, David Axelrod, Jim Messina, David Plouffe — had premier seats at the swearing-in.

Arrayed behind the president at the ceremony were the women with whom he lives: Michelle, Malia and Sasha, and Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, who lives on the third floor of the White House. The president’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, and her husband, Konrad Ng, made the trek from Hawaii; another half-sister, Auma Obama, also came. Michelle Obama’s brother, Craig Robinson, and his wife, Kelly, were with the Obamas as well.

Unlike four years ago, the first family was not preoccupied with the moving into the White House. This time, the family seemed more relaxed and comfortable, even playing pranks on one another. When the president’s limo returned to the White House on Monday morning after church, Malia sneaked up to surprise her father.

“Boo!” she shouted as he got out of the car. “You scared me!” Obama told his eldest daughter.

Seven hours later, as the family settled into the reviewing stand to watch the parade, a relief set in. Malia and Sasha pulled out their phones to take pictures and applied lip gloss. The president chewed gum and checked his BlackBerry. And when the Isiserettes Drill and Drum Corp from Des Moines performed, the Obamas started shimmying.

He watched and clapped and grinned until the parade ended, although the first lady slipped away to get ready for their last inaugural balls.

In 2009, the Obamas looked like they were mortified at the demands from cheering crowds to dance a little closer. Not so Monday night.

“There’s one last thing I gotta do,” the president said at the Commander in Chief’s Ball, and smiled broadly. “I’ve got a date” — for one more dance.

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.

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