On paper, second inaugurals shouldn't be that important. If the same person is going to continue in power, is it really worth all the fuss—or any at all? Could President Obama not have just taken the formal oath (as he did on Sunday) and leave it at that, getting back to the job at hand?
After watching Obama put his hand on the bible for the second time on Monday, I've concluded that the pomp and circumstance (though lessened from 2009) was indeed necessary—and earned.
While the inauguration of the first African-American president was an important ceremony, historic in nature, the inauguration of that person for a second term is arguably more important. It tells us that Obama's first election was not just a fluke, not some pure reactive response to what had become a strong discontent for former President Bush (who, incidentally, has behaved in quite a statesmanlike manner since his departure from the White House—a lesson in manners and respect for the office of the presidency one wishes he would teach to some of his fellow Republicans in Congress). It also showed the rest of the world that we are indeed walking the walk in the arena of racial equality. The country elected Obama in 2008, and even after a very rough four years and a nasty campaign, voted to keep him in the White House four more years.
And the ceremony itself—with the Supreme Court justices, the open crowd, the Marine Corps band, and the speeches—are a great example to the rest of the world of what democracy really is. Yes, we have screwed things up fiscally, and many of our elected officials have behaved pretty badly in response. Yes, we make a mockery of the legislative process sometimes, and abuse the idea of honest debate. But we do so openly, and the worst abusers are sometimes punished by being denied a trip back to D.C. (as happened to some members of Congress). And as bad as things get, we are still rightly proud of the hodgepodge of citizens we are. The crowd was filled with faces that were white, Latino, African-American and Asian. A Latina Supreme Court justice swore in Vice President Biden. The musical talent raged from James Taylor to Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce (whom losing vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan was walking behind as the ceremony finished). The first openly gay and Latino poet to perform at the inaugural delivered a reading he wrote for the occasion. And while Obama's speech rightly attracted the attention at the inaugural, Sen. Charles Schumer delivered an inspiring and moving address, in which he noted how President Lincoln was determined to complete the half-finished Capitol dome, even as the country was torn by civil war. Said the New York Democrat:
Far too many doubt the future of this great nation. And our ability to tackle our own here is half finished domes. Today's problems are intractable, they say—times are so complex the differences in the country in the world so deep. We will never overcome them. When thoughts like these produce anxiety, fear, and even despair, we do well to remember that Americans have always—and still are—a practical, optimistic, problem solving people.
And that—our history shows no matter how steep the decline, how difficult the problems, we have finished the task. America always rises to the occasion. America prospers.
Perhaps Schumer will re-enter the long-ago finished Capitol dome and find that the old divisions are still there, the partisan fights still rampant and destructive. But for one day, we remembered—and showed to the world—all that is great about our democracy.