The crowds are expected to be less than half the estimated 1.8 million people who gathered at the mall four years ago to witness what was inarguably an historic event.
The day has a touch of anticlimax, as the inaugural vows have already been taken yesterday.
The protagonist is changed, too. This Barack Obama is greyer, his face more lined and his rhetoric less transformative.
But the difference does not diminish the importance of the day and what lies ahead for the president, the nation and the world.
Four years ago the economy was teetering on the verge of collapse and the nation was desperately in need of hope that a better day would soon come.
Obama supplied that hope, riding his soaring speeches, undeniable charisma and deft campaign management grounded in his years as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side to victory over Republican opponent John McCain.
Many moments of Obama’s unlikely odyssey were drenched in historical meaning, from his victory in Iowa to his speech about race in Philadelphia to his accepting the nomination and, finally, coming out to Chicago’s Grant Park with his wife and two young daughters after having claimed the nation’s greatest political prize.
His inauguration was greeted, then, with sky-high expectations that were a function of the many promises Obama had made during the campaign and people’s bone-deep desire to believe them.
The reality was a far more grounded experience for Obama and the nation.
After securing approval of a $787 billion stimulus package, Obama spent a large amount of time and energy his first year in passing what proved to be a landmark health care reform bill opponents derisively called, “Obamacare.”
While he did follow through on many of his promises-the web site Politico kept the exact tally-the incomplete economic recovery, his failure to close Guantanamo and his repeated use of drones all dismayed his erstwhile supporters.
So, too, did his failure to make good on his commitments to take meaningful action on climate change and immigration reform. Instead, he deported record numbers of undocumented migrants.
On the other side, Obama’s election was met with an unprecedented and implacable Republican resistance. While many would fervently deny it, Obama supporters suspected that at least some part of the opposition was based in the inability to accept the fact that a black man had been elected president.
Obama appeared to overestimate his powers of persuasion, finding that his appeals to rational debate and his gestures of conciliation were taken by many to be patronizing and weak, respectively.
This combination of factors led to the president’s party getting drubbed in the mid-term elections and losing control of the House (The Democrats had already lost their veto-proof majority in the Senate when Scott Brown defeated Martha Coakley in the race to replace veteran Senator Edward Kennedy). Congressional districts throughout the country voted for members of an insurgent Tea Party that was even more strongly opposed to compromising with Obama than many other Republican elected officials. Obamacare came under attack in the states and the courts. And, in what some considered a low point in his presidency, he acceded to many Republican demands during financial negotiations in a period in which the nation lost its prized economic rating.
At this point, many political observers predicted that Obama would be a one-term president. Beyond that, many of his strongest supporters reported feeling betrayed by the man in whom they had placed so much trust.
But, like Bill Clinton before him, Obama clawed his way back to political relevance, and, eventually, victory.
It was not a straight path, but it did lead to being granted a second term after defeating Republican opponent Mitt Romney, whom Obama succeeded as painting as an out of touch elitist (Romney didn’t help his own cause much when the election-altering 47 percent comments surfaced in a six-part video published by Mother Jones).
Although successful in its objective of gaining a victory, Obama’s second campaign inspired far less hope.
Which brings us to today.
After four years in Washington, Obama appears to harbor little illusion about the degree of cooperation he will receive from Republicans.
But he also seems less inclined to compromise than he did during his first term.
Obama has stated his commitment to a comprehensive immigration reform that could create a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
He also is, according to some, planning to pay more attention to climate change.
More generally, the president is expected to lay out his vision for an agenda that may be less ambitious than what he originally articulated in 2008, but that nonetheless may move the county in the direction he pledged to go during his historic first campaign.
He takes the oath at 10:55 a.m. Chicago time.