Americans flocked to the National Mall on a blue-sky, chilly-but-not-freezing Monday morning, the air electric with anticipation as President Obama prepared for a second public swearing-in and inaugural speech.
The crowds won’t come close to the crush of humanity that packed the Mall four years ago – 1.8 million people, by various estimations. Any president’s second inauguration, by definition, can’t match the first – even for the first African-American president, whose historic election in 2008 was celebrated the world over.
In fact, Mr. Obama began his second term on Sunday, with a small swearing-in ceremony at the White House. By tradition, when the constitutionally mandated Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, falls on a Sunday, the big show takes place the next day: another oath-taking at the West front of the Capitol, the inaugural speech, the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, the balls.
But don’t sell the 57th Inauguration short. If the crowd meets the expectation of 500,000 to 700,000 people, it will be the largest ever at a second public inaugural, and the fourth largest at any inauguration, behind Obama’s first, President Lyndon Johnson’s in 1965 (1.2 million), and President Bill Clinton’s in 1993 (800,000).
And to many of those in attendance – some of whom traveled from far and wide, many of them African-American or even just plain African – Jan. 21, 2013, is just as meaningful as Jan. 20, 2009, all the more because it is also the holiday celebrating slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
“It’s an historical event,” says Felicia John, a lawyer from Benin City in southern Nigeria. “I was unable to attend the last one. This time I felt I cannot fail to attend. I had to be here.”
Obama is so important, Ms. John says, because he’s an African-American. “If he can be president of America, then anybody from any [origin] of the world can,” she says.
Rick Harwood, principal of Global Connections High School in Seattle, was on the Mall with 38 students ages 14 to 18, mostly from low-income families.
“For [the students], the first president they’re aware of is an African-American. This is the first presidency they’re aware of,” Mr. Harwood says. The students raised $62,000 in a month to attend the inauguration. They are part of a wind ensemble here for a festival in honor of the inauguration.
Why did the students wish to travel all the way across the country to attend? “The last [presidential] debate [between Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney] was about being rich and poor – the president representing what it takes to support people who are struggling,” says Harwood.
One of the students, Amanda Saeteurn, sold books to help earn the money to come. The reason she wanted to come is “change.” “Obama has made a lot of changes, and they will take time to take effect,” she says.
For others, Obama’s second inauguration is a chance to see history again – only with better weather and room to breathe. Suzanne Dempsey, a special education teacher in Frederick, Md., who came to the first inauguration, allowed as how she didn’t have to get up so early to get a decent spot.
“I wanted to feel that wonderful energy again,” Ms. Dempsey says.
Dennis Rutledge, a middle-aged African-American man from D.C. (but born in Alabama, he emphasizes) was excited to see the president walk through the door of St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House Monday morning for the preinaugural service.
“I’m on a high,” said Mr. Rutledge.
He came four years ago, but it was so crowded around the White House he just "smelled the air" and left. This time he wanted to make sure he saw the president, so he got a primo seat on the concrete barrier by St. John's.
Judy Garth, from suburban Virginia, volunteered for the president in that critical battleground state – she was “terrified” Mr. Romney would win, she says – and decided she had to see the inauguration, which she didn’t do four years ago.
"This was the last chance to do this," she says. "Who knows what's going to happen in four years?"
And what about the big style question of the day – first lady Michelle Obama’s new hairdo, complete with bangs? “Undecided,” says Ms. Garth.
Some came to promote a cause. Abdul Rasheed, a 25-year-old from Nigeria who recently got his green card, was handing out fliers to thousands of visitors in the cold to raise more awareness about Islam and the Arab world. He says he hopes to bring peace "by putting more information out there.”
Duncan Gilchrist, a student at American University, held signs urging Obama not to approve construction of the controversial Keystone XL oil-sands pipeline.
Alicia Basin and Kara Leslie, students from Clarkson, Mich., came to promote the right to same-sex marriage.
"Love comes before money, and we want to remind [Obama] and Americans that we are not second-class citizens,” says Ms. Leslie. “We want to get married in our own state."
For some, Obama’s reelection is infused with religious meaning.
Lynette Jones, a professional cake decorator from Massillon, Ohio, bused 6-1/2 hours into the D.C. area on Saturday with her church group from the Bethel Apostolic Church.
“We’re just excited that he made it to a second term,” Ms. Jones says. Some members of the group got tickets from congressmen to view the parade from stands along Pennsylvania Avenue. But for others it’s just a chance to be there for a historic event.
“It means a lot with him being the first black president,” she adds. “It shows we can do everything.”
“My favorite Bible verse is ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4: 13),’ ” she adds. "It [his winning a second term] shows that you can.”
The group will board the bus right after the inauguration to get back to Ohio Monday night.
Staff writers Gail Russell Chaddock and David Grant and intern Winnie Yeung contributed to this report.