Four years ago, Barack Hussein Obama's inauguration completed a script that few from any racial or ideological corner of America thought possible in these times: A black man, liberal by any description, had ascended to the presidency of white-dominated, right-center America. That the son of an African Muslim could seize the American imagination even as distrust of all things foreign and Islamic was at a national crescendo only underscored the momentousness of the occasion.
Monday's scene on the National Mall at Obama's second public recitation of the oath of office reflected a nation and a president grounded considerably deeper in reality. At times, in keeping with his gift, Obama's rhetoric soared, but beneath the luster was a recurring acknowledgement of opportunities missed and goals unrealized.
Just a few feet from a sober and at times glowering John Boehner, the leader of the House Republicans, Obama declared that political "absolutism" and partisan rancor were at the heart of Washington's inability to restore and empower ordinary Americans. "We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate," Obama said, looking out on the crowd of 700,000 -- less than half the record 1.8 million that gathered to hear him four years ago but most likely second only to Lyndon Johnson's 1965 swearing-in among incumbent presidents.
Obama's words, if not necessarily his tone, reflected the realities of lingering economic weakness and a capitol divided and intransigent like few, if any, in national memory. Unlike four years ago, when Obama spoke of national unity, the president seemed resigned to more of the same with a speech as partisan as any a House Republican might have offered. Obama's speech was, in essence, a recitation of the Democrats' central philosophy.
"Progress," Obama said, "does not compel us to settle centuries long debates about the role of government for all time."
Much of his 18-minute speech was a straightforward agenda for the next four years (and most likely the next 18 months in particular): addressing climate change, preserving the sanctity of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and prioritizing government spending on infrastructure and public schools.
If one checked in on presidential demeanor and rhetoric only once every four years, one would hardly have recognized this Barack Obama: This one was grayer and significantly less inclined to deliver sweeping, grandiose descriptions of new eras and new national resolve. This one, emboldened by November's affirmation and strong, steady poll numbers ever since, was clearly spoiling for the trench warfare of Washington politics.
This was not the starry-eyed, even naive Obama of 2009. The president has undergone an evolution that his biggest critics vocally doubted he could ever undergo: from community organizer to savvy political leader.
Community organizing turns out to have been an important resume highlight, as Obama's defeated opponents can now attest. The question for Obama's second term: Can his appetite for the fight and proven skills as a commander of partisan forces serve his goals over the next four years? If his relative lack of interest in florid prose in this second inaugural speech is any indication, Obama clearly intends to find out.