President Obama had just finished his fiercely partisan and pragmatic inaugural address when he turned back to the crowd and gave it a wistful gaze. "I want to take a look one more time," he said. "I'm not going to see this again."
The remark reflected the cruel duel nature of a president's final inauguration: He is both at the peak of his political powers and in certain decline.
Obama is fresh off a decisive reelection victory, his approval rating is above 50 percent, and he delivered a widely praised inaugural address that defended an ambitious liberal agenda.
From gay rights and women's rights to Medicare, Social Security, income equality, social mobility, the national debt, and climate change, the president linked his approach to the nation's founding principles. Even conservative commentators called it a rhetorical success; David Brooks of The New York Times said the speech "surely has to rank among the best of the past half-century."
The president was able to dismiss, at least for a day, the harsh realities of presiding over a divided government and facing obstructionist rivals. "We cannot mistake absolutism for principle," Obama said, "or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate."