Not surprisingly, Oden and other civil-rights veterans felt compelled to be there. "It was just mind-blowing," he says. "We kept asking ourselves, is this really possible? Is this really happening?" But more surprisingly, he was joined that day by many political opponents of Obama who were also moved by such a long-awaited American milestone. Even many Republicans were swept up in the optimism after the 2008 election, hoping that Obama could make a difference. Millions of Americans bought into the notion that he was somehow above partisan politics.
Four years later, we all know better. "Now, we know he is a politician. More gifted than some, not as gifted as others, but at the end of the day, he is a politician," said Terry Golway, director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics, and Policy in New Jersey. "He is president of the United States. He is not a secular saint." Richard Parker, a lecturer at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, adds, "He is now a known quantity, which he wasn't before." Before, Obama was so new to the national scene that many weren't sure about his leanings. Now, we know where he stands and whom he stands with. And we know that he is a Democrat, a partisan. He did not usher in a new era.
"Now, we know he is a politician. More gifted than some, not as gifted as others." — Terry Golway, Kean University
The country is also in a much different place than it was four years ago. Amid the talk of fiscal cliffs and what seems to be a fresh crisis every day, it is easy to forget just how real economic calamity was on Jan. 20, 2009, how palpable the worry was, how deep the concern for the very survival of the financial system. In November 2008, the nation lost 802,000 jobs; in December, 619,000 more disappeared; and in January 2009, 820,000 more people were thrown out of work — a series of staggering blows to the economy. Only five days before the inauguration, a report showed that mortgage foreclosures had almost doubled in 2008, with 861,664 families losing their homes.
It was, Golway recalled, "a moment of absolute panic," raising the stakes for Obama's inaugural address and making it critical that he find a way to give hope to an anxious nation. David Wrobel, an expert on American history at the University of Oklahoma, said it was "just an awful time." To him, the mood of this inauguration is quite different. Instead of the deep crisis of 2009, Wrobel sees "a general kind of fatalistic feeling," a recognition that while things have gotten better, they're not great. And with that has come the realization that there are no quick fixes.
No longer do Americans believe that an outsider is going to ride in and change Washington. They have been through too many battles between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Four years ago, the combination of a Democratic president working with a Democratic Congress suggested a universe of opportunity. Conversely, today, people have no illusions about how a Democratic president and a Republican House coexist. Obama has not shown himself a master of working with a hostile Legislature. And it's hard to cheer for gridlock. Additionally, no matter how much Obama would like to cast himself as representing change, he is the incumbent — and incumbents are the status quo. When he takes the oath, Parker says, Obama will represent "continuity and an unrealized dream."