What is it about an inauguration that lightens the mood on Capitol Hill?

At a post-inaugural lunch on Capitol Hill, Obama and US lawmakers put rancor aside, and comity and laughter presided. On Inauguration Day, at least, Washington can still get along.

Benjamin Myers/Reuters
President Barack Obama (r.) talks with Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) at the conclusion of the Inaugural luncheon in Statuary Hall after his ceremonial swearing in at the US Capitol on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 21.

Not long after his second inaugural address on Monday, President Obama faced a pair of unlikely foes: first lady Michelle Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.

“Michelle and the speaker of the House came to a meeting of the minds,” the famously long-winded Mr. Obama said during a lunch with congressional leaders and other dignitaries in the Capitol, “that I may be delaying the proceedings too much.”

The sometimes bitter relationship between the president and the most powerful Republican in Washington disappeared for a moment, and there was laughter. On Inauguration Day, at least, Washington can still get along.

Sure, some of the D.C. bonhomie of Inauguration Day is cheesy and evergreen, a tepid collegiality along the lines of US senators calling one another “my dear friend” even as they excoriate each other on the Senate floor. But on a day about American unity, the bipartisan comity was a warm reminder of the higher ideals that sometimes get lost amid factional strife.

“Today we praise the American tradition of transferring or reaffirming immense power as we inaugurate the president of the United States. We do this in a peaceful, orderly way,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee during the inaugural ceremony. Senator Alexander was one of the two Senate leaders charged with orchestrating the festivities surrounding Obama’s inauguration on the west Capitol steps.

“This is a moment when millions stop and watch – a moment that is the most conspicuous and enduring symbol of our democracy,” continued Alexander, who left a position with the Senate’s GOP leadership in 2011 to more freely pursue bipartisan problemsolving.

Obama, too, struck a conciliatory tone during his lunch remarks. “I recognize that democracy is not always easy, and I recognize there are profound differences in this room,” he said. 

Later, Obama continued: “I know that former President Carter, President Clinton, they understand the irony of the presidential office, which is, the longer you're there the more humble you become and the more mindful you are that it is beyond your poor powers individually to move this great country. You can only do it because you have extraordinary partners and a spirit of good will and, most of all, because of the strength and resilience and fundamental goodness of the American people.”

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky issued a statement in which he framed the matter of differences between the president and congressional Republicans as a key opportunity for the future.

“The President’s second term represents a fresh start when it comes to dealing with the great challenges of our day; particularly, the transcendent challenge of unsustainable federal spending and debt,” the minority leader said. “Republicans are eager to work with the President on achieving this common goal, and we firmly believe that divided government provides the perfect opportunity to do so. Together, there is much we can achieve.”

But Vice President Joe Biden perhaps best encapsulated the inaugural spirit. Mr. Biden, a US Senate veteran of more than 30 years whom Obama has called upon time and again to hammer out deals with his former colleagues, suggested that every inauguration holds the potential for renewal between the White House and Congress. 

“It’s always a new beginning every time we're in this room,” the vice president said during the post-inaugural luncheon. “And there’s a sense of possibilities and a sense of opportunity, and a sense, sometimes it’s fleeting, but a sense that maybe we can really begin to work together.”

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