The inaugural ceremonies themselves highlighted the idea of bipartisanship and continuity of American democracy. Two of Obama’s predecessors, Democrats Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, were among the dignitaries gathered at the Capitol’s West Front. So too were many of the congressional Republicans who have battled Obama through the past four years. The country’s two living former Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush were not present; the elder Bush recently was released from a hospital in Houston after a bout with bronchitis.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said before the ceremony that he expected most Republicans to attend the inaugural ceremony, a historic moment regardless of party. He noted that he had prime seats for Obama's first inaugural and regretted not snapping any photos of the proceedings. "I'm going to try to this time," he said.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a fiery conservative, said "my thought for today is, this is a constitutional event and our forefathers would be proud we're following the directions they gave us.
"Tomorrow we'll start the political discussion."
Overall, of course, the crowd, as is typical with inaugural celebrations, was heavily dominated by the president’s supporters, who cheered loudly as Obama’s motorcade arrived at the Capitol from the White House. They cheered again as the Obamas’ daughters, Malia and Sasha, were introduced and then, a few minutes later, for First Lady Michelle Obama.
In keeping with the intense enthusiasm that Obama’s presidency has generated among African Americans, the audience was disproportionately black. Several spectators commented on the special significance of the swearing-in taking place on the nation’s Martin Luther King Jr. day observance.
Ed Jennings, 44, who sported a knitted Obama cap, said he anticipated the president would urge unity in his inaugural address.
“It'll be a summary of where this country is. There was a fierce debate about where our country is going, and he won," he said.
Hazel Carter, 90, of Springfield, Ohio, attended the last inauguration and wasn't going to miss this one. "I prayed, God, just let me keep breathing until the inauguration," she said with a laugh.
"The crowd isn’t nearly the crowd of the first time. The anticipation isn't what it was,” she said. “It's a little more subdued, but beautiful. Beautiful. I love it."
Seated next to her, Thelma Lawson, 61, a nurse from Chicago, said she had not attended the swearing-in four years ago, "but now I am so excited because I'm in the midst of what is history of being made twice.”
Chinwe Aldridge of Fort Washington, Md., said she and her husband had not decided to come to the ceremony until Sunday night, after some prodding from their two children.
"I told them we could have a better shot at home on television," she said. "They said they had to be here. Those are big words from little kids."
Staff writers Rich Simon, Melanie Mason, Lisa Mascaro and Joe Tanfani contributed to this report.