In the run-up to Barack Obama’s second inauguration, conservatives clung—clung bitterly, you could say—to the hope his crowd would be smaller. Byron York, one of the city’s best-respected conservative reporters, told readers that the “low-interest Obama inauguration” was leaving hotel rooms empty. “Amid lessened hope and enthusiasm for his presidency,” wrote York, “it’s easy to find a room.” Twitchy, a conservative site that collates tweets into stories, highlighted twitpics of empty streets and light human traffic, “just a fraction” of 2009’s rolling madhouse.
Crowd size is a powerful stimulant. When you enter the D.C. office of FreedomWorks, you see a photo of the Sept. 12, 2009 “taxpayer march on Washington,” blown up to fit the better part of a wall. After that march ended, activists shared photo analyses and time-release data to argue that at least a million people had shown up. Fox News took out an ad in the Washington Post, page A9, with a picture of the crowd surging up the mall and a taunt at its rival networks for “missing the story.” In 2010, Glenn Beck commandeered the National Mall for his Restoring Honor Rally, and his fans were sure he’d drawn more congregants than Martin Luther King Jr. did.
The crowdsmanship flowed straight into the 2012 campaign. When Barack Obama made a campaign stop, Mitt Romney’s campaign (or supportive bloggers) fired up Google to confirm that he was drawing fewer people than he did in 2008. A last-minute Obama rally in Wisconsin was smaller than a last-minute 2004 rally for John Kerry. A Cleveland stop was “twenty times” smaller than a 2008 Obama rally there. Obama had downsized from a monster outdoor victory rally in Chicago to a party at the blocky convention center. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney would gawk at his own crowds and tell them that they’d “become a movement.” They would take him to Washington.
That didn’t work out. At 7:27 a.m. (or so) today, I left my house in a pleasantly gentrified neighborhood about two miles north of the Capitol. The only people on the streets were headed for the metro stations. The white twentysomethings wore those white-twentysomething uniforms of slim jeans, Uggs, pea coats, and beards. The middle-aged black folks wore Obama gear, and with zero irony—sweatshirts with odd-colored photos of the first family, unofficial knit hats with the “O” in Obama turned into a peace symbol. One woman sported a red satin jacket with smiling pictures of the president sewn on like Girl Scout badges, and “THE ONE” written where an athlete’s name would be.
This was a smaller group than 2009, but it managed to overload every relevant Metro stop and every checkpoint. The press, eventually, was diverted through one of the House office buildings, where their gear could be scanned. By 9 a.m., anyone arriving at the press and VIP rows below the inaugural stand could look back and see the Mall filled, choked up back to the Washington Monument.
Who were these people? At the edge of the VIP section, stage right, some room had been cleared for Tuskegee Airmen. Any member of the media who ambled around would walk right into them, and so at any given time, four or five reporters were leaning into the wheelchairs, filing a tear-jerk story. None of the pioneering black airmen were younger than 80; the youngest, Ezra Hill, was aged 82, and spry enough to direct airmen from the perimeter into the prime spots.* When an instrumental version of “Amazing Grace” plays, he and another airman sing the lyrics. The two of them, said Hill, had sung together for years, and even won a competition in 1948.
“They locked up the trophy, like we’d never did nothing,” he said. “It was segregation, you know how it was. It’s like President Obama said: You were 20 years ahead of Martin Luther King. The Tuskegee Airmen opened the door. Everyone else was pulled along.”
The Tuskegee Airmen had gotten similar treatment at the 2009 inauguration, and Obama had invited them to the White House since then. I wasn’t surprised to hear them quoting the president from memory. Any glance into the crowd, at any point, revealed a preponderance of African-American faces. Near the ticketed seats, with a view partially obscured by the towering media stands, a group of activists who’d shared rides here compared how much they’d done for Obama.
“Cleveland got it done!” said Greg Parks, a reverend from the city. “Go back and check the margin from Cuyahoga County—300,000 votes. That was the margin. We won the state.”
“I was in Denver,” said Brenda Innis, a retired teacher who’d come to D.C. early in the week to see her son get a Navy promotion. “We turned it from red to blue!”
Parks had the better argument, actually. Both of those states voted for Bush, then for Obama. Both of them, I noticed, were already clued-in and worried about future elections being taken away.
“They’re trying to change the way they give the, what are they called, the Electoral College districts,” said Parks. “The Republicans are already saying they’re going to change that, so if we won again, the Republicans would get a few votes. They’re doing that today! While we’re here!”
You didn’t hear angst like that in the 2009. The Obama win had been overwhelming, and the people that booked every hotel in the beltway adored him before he’d really done anything. This was the point of all that conservative mockery and talking-down of 2013. It was a theme of the campaign, too—the Republican National Committee’s closing ad, in some suburban markets, portrayed the Obama vote as a knee-injuring dance craze that everyone had learned to regret. “He tried,” sighed the narrator. “You tried. It’s OK to make a change.”
Actually, the Obama voter had learned never to trust Republicans. During his speech, the loudest cheer rose when the president settled scores from 2012. “Our journey is not complete,” he said, “until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.” This was a problem that excited the pundit class every four years, and no president had mentioned it in a speech like this—the crowd erupted. The president denounced “name-calling as reasoned debate,” and the cheers were almost as loud.
Of course they were. Four years ago, everybody except Sarah Palin seemed to love Barack Obama. And now he’d defeated people who challenged his citizenship and called him an agent of long-dead Communists. The people who’d come back for this inauguration hadn’t beaten the crowds from 2009. But they’d sure enough beaten the Tea Party. The president had fallen short on civil liberties, on climate bills, on a lot of what these people wanted. But they blamed his enemies, not the One. He’d been underestimated, and so had they, and that was exactly how they were going to win again.
Correction, Jan. 22, 2013: This article originally identified Ezra Hill, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, as a former pilot. In fact, he was an engineer. (Return.)