President Barack Obama's second inauguration comes at a critical time in the country, with major fiscal, foreign and domestic policy questions awaiting answers.
The hype—and hope—surrounding Obama has receded some, but in some ways both he and his supporters are more clear-eyed and focused on achieving change, the promise of his initial campaign.
While Obama's first inauguration followed an improbably successful presidential run, his second follows an unlikely but ultimately decisive one, given the dismal state of the economy.
Upon his first inauguration, the doom and gloom of the country's fiscal state four years ago, when the economy was shedding 800,000 jobs a month, was outshined by the blind optimism and faith of a public ready to believe in Obama's soaring rhetoric. This time, a more modest event is planned in the face of long-term unemployment and stalled or receding wages for middle- and low-income Americans.
The crowds, which reportedly topped 1.8 million four years ago, are expected to be about half that this time around. Instead of the traditional 10 official inaugural balls, the Obamas will only be visiting two - the Commander-in-Chief's Ball, honoring military service members, and a consolidated official 'super' Inaugural Ball, both to be held in the Washington Convention Center.
In a broader sense, though Obama has achieved major ambitions during his first term—ending the war in Iraq, drawing down American troops from Afghanistan, killing Osama bin Laden, passing major financial reform and health care measures, for example—daunting problems persist.
The world stage is marred by European economic woes, raging internal conflicts in Syria and Mali, a massive kidnapping in Algeria and a constant wariness of Iran and North Korea's pursuit of nuclear bombs.
Within the United States' own borders, questions of the potential for new gun and immigration policy loom, alongside Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage and an economy that has yet to rebound in a meaningful way for many. And most citizens worry that their elected officials are crippled by partisanship and unable to cope with upcoming fiscal crises.
And yet, Obama shows signals he is poised to improve on his first-term performance, which has earned mixed marks.
Following the mass killing of mostly first-graders in Newtown, Conn., Obama has outlined specific proposals for gun reforms, including backing an assault weapons ban that stands little chance of passing Congress. In making the case for his economic policies, he has repeatedly made more use of his bully pulpit, appealing to the public in press conferences and campaign-like appearances to force a stubborn House Republican caucus to take his ideas more seriously.
He's also bolstered by an approval rating hovering around the 50 percent mark, which is improved from what it was much of his first term.
So when the president takes the stage on a platform before the Capitol Monday to deliver his second—and final—inaugural address, it offers viewers a glimpse of what the more experienced but undoubtedly still optimistic man hopes to accomplish. It marks the beginning of the end, the opportunity for Obama to decide on and cement his legacy into the fabric of the country he still leads.