WASHINGTON — It was a spur-of-the-moment decision made just three days earlier but George Rhodes, a retired schoolteacher from Selma, Ala., who has always been daunted by crowds and big cities, felt compelled to drive 860 miles to the nation’s capital to witness the inauguration of President Obama.
He came alone, after scoring a downtown hotel room for under $300 online, and made his way on foot, along with thousands of others, to the Washington Monument, where those without official tickets to the swearing-in ceremony gathered to celebrate a hard-fought victory.
For many, including Rhodes, Monday’s inauguration was their first, seized by the allure of history and, yes, promise — but tempered by the reality of the last four years.
As they awaited Obama’s speech to be shown on a giant screen, many reflected on the deep divisions facing the country and the need for bipartisanship. Without the cooperation of Congress, many of the president’s supporters said, they fear that his goals for a second term — legislation targeting gun control, immigration, and global warming — will never come to pass.
“I know politics is politics, but they need to look beyond politics at human needs,” said Rhodes, 65, a former physics and chemistry teacher at a predominantly black public high school. “I have hope, but he has to hit the ground running really fast because in a year and a half, he becomes a lame duck. If the last four years is any indication of what the next year and a half might be, then I just don’t know. It’ll probably be more of the same.”
Rhodes, with a scarf wrapped around his knit cap for extra warmth, sat on a low stone wall circling the obelisk as the clear skies gradually turned overcast. Next to him, a pair of sisters from Dayton, Ohio, shouted, “That’s my president! That’s my baby!” as images of Obama and his family on the Capitol steps flickered onto the giant screen.
“They should help him instead of working against him,” said Barbara Rutledge, a 72-year-old former assembly line worker for General Motors, who made the trek to Washington despite an ailing back that kept her away four years ago.
“I just wish they’d leave him alone and let him do his job,” said Rutledge, referring to intransigent Republicans in Congress, several of whom four years ago said their top priority was to make sure Obama only gets one term. “He says yes, they say no. If they worked with him instead of against him, then our country would work a lot better.”
Onlookers bundled in ski jackets and ankle-length fur coats piled two or three deep atop the wall on which Rutledge and her sister were sitting for a panoramic view of the National Mall. A hush fell over the crowd when Obama’s words rang out over the loud speakers — garbled and broken, at times, due to a technical malfunction. Some grumbled and tried to make their way out of the crush of people.
Cheers erupted when Obama referenced equal pay for women, equal rights for gays, voting without harassment, and opportunity for immigrants. “Decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay,” Obama said. “... We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will only be partial.”
Bruce Hollingsworth, a project manager for the American Red Cross, who attended the inauguration after feeling remorse at missing it four years ago, said he is weary of the congressional stalemate and urged both Republicans and Democrats to compromise.
“Nothing’s getting done. We can’t go through four more years like that,” said Hollingsworth, of Silver Spring, Md. “They should be listening to each other and coming up with some sort of compromise as opposed to all or nothing.”
Hollingsworth said the national budget ranks among his top concerns, and he is not opposed to increasing the eligibility age for Medicare over a period of time — something Obama had once considered but backed away from while running for reelection. “Fix it and move on,” said Hollingsworth, 54. “Otherwise the country is mired in a never-ending cycle of argument and hate.”
Others in the crowd were hopeful that Obama could use this second term to complete the tasks he set out to do four years ago. Aaron Paul, an art historian who moved to Washington from Cambridge a decade ago, said the inauguration represents a new opportunity for Obama to “continue the work that was obstructed by Congress in the last four years.”
Paul, 62, hopes that in the next four years the country’s economic health will continue to improve and that same-sex marriage will come to be recognized on a federal level, something Obama alluded to in his inaugural address.
Paul and his husband, Randall Trespacz, 52, were married in Washington two years ago after meeting 22 years ago while biking along the Charles River.
“They have to work together, otherwise they’re not going to get reelected,” Paul said. “The anger of the American people is like a tsunami heading towards Washington.”
Closer to the Capitol, visitors streamed in from Union Station toward the National Mall by the hundreds, stopping at street vendors to buy Obama buttons, hats, and shirts along the way. At Constitution Avenue and Third Street before the swearing-in ceremony, the crowd began screaming, snapping pictures, and waving as the president’s motorcade drove toward the Capitol.
Willy Gu, a 22-year-old Dallas native who recently graduated from the University of Chicago, had worked for the Obama campaign in Florida. He would like to see Obama be more aggressive in his second term.
“He’s got to learn to work with Congress, but at the same time punch through his issues in particular,” Gu said. “Recently he took a great leadership stance on gun control. Why can’t he do that more often?”
Deborah Small, 56, who took a bus from Little Rock, said Obama has a “tall mountain to climb” but believes that he can succeed because he is a “natural-born leader.”
“Here I am at 56, finally being able to see the second inauguration of our first black president,” Small said. “There is a reward for perseverance, for keeping the faith. It does pay off, maybe not today or next year. But it does pay off.”