WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Barack Obama delivered a direct, forceful inaugural address Monday, during which he promised the continuation of a large national government and socially progressive platform to a lackluster crowd who at times seemed more interested in their cell phones than his speech.
Despite the president’s sharply ideological tone – perhaps to fire up his base for his second term – the crowd gathered on the National Mall failed to catch the emotional fever pitch. It remains to be seen what, if any, role the strong smell of the marijuana smoke in one part of the Mall played on the crowd’s demeanor.
To be sure, a few people around me radiated excitement at first.
“Mama!” one child cried after her mother shouted Obama’s name and cheered.
“Don’t you hush me,” the woman said. “That’s my president. You’d be yelling the same at a football game.”
Others in the crowd didn’t quite share her enthusiasm. Chants of “O-Bam-A” rippled toward the back of the crowd where I stood but died off in less than fifteen seconds as visitors lowered their cell phones and resumed texting or looking at pictures they just took. Behind me, one or two people tried to start chants again; they never took off.
The crowd reacted positively to some parts of the speech, halfheartedly or not at all to others.
Mentions of equal pay for women provoked cheers and flag-waving, but oddly, where I stood, Obama’s next few lines addressing gay rights elicited almost no response, despite the obvious emotional momentum:
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” Obama declared to the slightly subdued crowd around us.
As if supporters of the president had been lulled into apathy after the election, the crowd’s cheers took on a fiercer edge when Obama obliquely referred to his Republican enemies on Capitol Hill.
“For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay,” Obama said. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”
The last part brought forth jeers. Another mention of Newtown, Conn., brought forth quiet murmurs, but for the post part, the crowd alternated between offering standard cheers and looking at their cameras or cell phones, or hugging their shivering kids.
Whether it was the cold or fatigue from overnight trips, no one exuded the passion of 2009.
On the way toward the National Mall, I passed by many vendors hawking Obama t-shirts and buttons, and several people pushed carts full of what looked like fake issues of a commemorative issue of The Washington Post.
“Obama pretzels!” yelled a couple men with shopping carts stacked with soft pretzels. Most of the crowd ambled by, uninterested. I didn’t see any kids asking their parents for goodies.
After Obama’s speech, a few lingered by the stands, looking at the t-shirts with idle interest, but no one appeared to be buying anything at the Mall, near Capitol South, or Stadium Armory.
No one seemed rushed, excited, or frazzled. The city swelled by an estimated 800,000 people with no noticeable effects besides jammed Metro stations.
Obama’s supporters, after electing the president, don’t seem to share his sense of urgency. If the country is moving “Forward,” under Obama, it’s doing it at a pretty idle pace.
Fix contributor Katie McHugh is a student at Allegheny College.