WASHINGTON — The reviewing stands are up, the buildings festooned with bunting. But on the eve of President Obama's second inauguration, the city's mood feels more somber than celebratory, even for those who wanted to see Obama re-elected.
The thrill of 2008 has yielded to the frustration of 2012. This inauguration represents the triumph of experience over hope. Perhaps the letdown is unavoidable. The second time is never as exciting. A presidency on the doorstep of a first term is promise unmarred by performance. A re-elected president arrives with scars to weigh against the stirring words of an inaugural address.
Still, the gap between thrill and deflation feels particularly yawning this year. Not because Obama had a failed first term — he didn't, not in my assessment and not by any objective measure.
So why the dimmed enthusiasm?
Because four years ago Democrats were so relieved to shake off eight years of George W. Bush. Because the election of a black president was so inspiring. But mostly because hopes then were so inflated — hopes of bridging partisan divides and changing the ways of Washington.
“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord,” the president said in his inaugural address. “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
How naive — how sad — this sounds in retrospect.
Just a few weeks later, after the stimulus plan had passed the House without a single Republican vote, the president was asked at his first news conference if he had underestimated the difficulty of changing Washington.
“Oh, I don't think I underestimated it,” Obama replied. “It's going to take time to break down some of those bad habits.”
He cited “a series of overtures” to Republicans — meeting with both Republican caucuses, putting three Republicans in his Cabinet, inviting Republicans to the White House to discuss the stimulus bill. “All those were not designed simply to get some short-term votes,” Obama said. “They were designed to try to build up some trust over time. … And I think that as I continue to make these overtures, over time hopefully that will be reciprocated.”