— President Barack Obama will be inaugurated for a second four-year term in office before a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people gathered Monday near the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord," Obama told the nearly two million gathered to witness the swearing in of the country’s first African-American president in January of 2009.
But four years later, the national mood has been tempered by political realities of a divided government that has frustrated voters around the country. Like many second-term presidents, Obama faces the challenge of rallying support for the next four years after bruising first-term battles with Congress.
“Four years later, most presidents have discovered it is not as easy to bring about fundamental change," says presidential historian Richard Norton Smith. "You pick up a lot of scars in the course of four years, let alone eight.”
But regardless of changed political sentiments, each inauguration provides the country an opportunity for national unity and a pause in Washington's partisan battles.
“It is something that takes place every four years, war or peace, no matter what," says Marvin Kranz, who has researched presidential inaugurations for years with the Library of Congress, and describes the event as a kind of ritual of "American civil religion" in which the orator has a chance to make their mark on history.
Franklin Roosevelt did it in 1933 with his first inaugural address at the height of the Great Depression: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
President John Kennedy did it in 1961 with a famous appeal for citizens to engage public service: “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
According to Republican analyst Scot Faulkner, President Obama will be thinking of his place in history as he delivers his second inaugural address.
“Obama is looking at legacy now," says Faulkner. "He is not looking at re-election, and he has got the [upcoming] State of the Union message where he can deal with a much more detailed legislative agenda. So my assumption is his inaugural address will be one for the ages.”
The U.S. Constitution says about specifics of a presidential inauguration, other than requiring the president to take an oath swearing to “faithfully execute the Office of President” and “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.”
The other rituals now associated with presidential inaugurals – the inaugural address, the parade and formal balls – evolved as traditions over time.