WASHINGTON — For President Obama’s second inaugural, we’re just going through the motions.
In advance of Monday’s festivities, the barriers have been erected around Lafayette Square, grandstands assembled up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, bunting hung from the Treasury, and portable toilets lined up by the hundreds. The parade route and the mall have become an encampment of tents, trailers, satellite trucks and amplifiers. Workers are making final adjustments to the two massive structures at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue where dignitaries will view the swearing-in and the procession. Yet the whole thing is, literally, all for show. The real oath of office will be administered privately, on Sunday, in the White House. Obama is like the couple that gets married at city hall and then re-enacts the ceremony for guests. Monday’s phony ceremony on the West Front of the Capitol contributes to the overall letdown that is this 2013 inauguration. For all the grand preparations, the moment feels small. Four years ago, hundreds of thousands of people flooded the capital, sleeping on floors and lining the streets so that they could be part of history: the inauguration of the first black president, who had the promise of being a transformational figure that could bring hope and change to a broken political system.
That messiah never came, and a sluggish economic recovery overshadowed his term. Obama was re-elected less because he inspired the nation than because he discredited his opponent. Most Americans still think the country is headed in the wrong direction, and just one in five trust their government to do the right thing. Much of this says less about Obama than the times. But the president manages to make his own presidency seem smaller by his frequent invocations of our greatest president. Obama, who launched his first presidential campaign in the place where Abraham Lincoln delivered his “House Divided” speech, will place his hand Monday, as he did in 2009, on the Bible Lincoln used for his 1861 inauguration. Obama requested to give this year’s State of the Union address on Lincoln’s birthday. He held a screening of the movie “Lincoln” in the White House and went to lunch at the new Lincoln restaurant. He’s paid a couple of visits to the Lincoln Memorial and reports that he likes to reread the handwritten Gettysburg Address in the Lincoln Bedroom, and ponder the Emancipation Proclamation, hanging in the Oval Office. He compared the criticism he has received as president to that Lincoln received. In the Atlantic, Obama wrote a year ago that Lincoln “calls on us through the ages to commit ourselves to the unfinished work he so nobly advanced — the work of perfecting our Union.”
Obama does have one thing in common with Lincoln: Rains have left the Capitol grounds muddy, just as they were when Lincoln took his second oath of office there, at the East Front, in 1865. Yet the comparison ends at that: Lincoln was at that time winning the Civil War and permanently abolishing slavery. Today, instead of great moral causes, we have ceaseless and petty bickering over paying federal debts. Lincoln’s second inaugural had the lines many Americans still know by heart: “judge not, that we be not judged,” and “fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray,” and, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Inviting comparison to that moment inevitably makes Obama’s second-term program, as he outlined it last week — “making modest adjustments to programs like Medicare” and “closing loopholes in our tax code” — seem little. At his news conference, Obama vowed: “I intend to carry out the agenda that I campaigned on — an agenda for new jobs, new opportunity, and new security for the middle class.”
Even that modest list sounds ambitious considering the hardened opposition to all things Obama among the House Republican majority. Immigration reform? Maybe. A grand bargain to balance the nation’s books? Not promising. A crackdown on gun violence? Looking doubtful. Progress on climate change? Fuhgeddaboutdit. On the eve of Obama’s second inaugural, it’s difficult to see anything ahead but a long and tedious slog: Not a civil war, mercifully, but a political war of attrition.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post whose work appears Mondays and Fridays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.