WASHINGTON -- Four years ago, as the United States inaugurated its first black president amidst the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, an estimated 1.8 million swarmed the National Mall to savor the historical moment and looked to incoming President Barack Obama for his message of hope and change.
On Monday, that hallowed affair was altogether routine. Jobs continue to grow -- albeit not fast enough for those under- or unemployed -- and the housing and financial markets appear stable.
The atmosphere was less dramatic, but the excitement had not dissipated. Much like in 2009, the crowd erupted into cheers at the sight of the first family on a Jumbotron.
For some, Obama's second inauguration bore even more significance than his first. Seth Smith, 29, didn't fight the frigid temperatures four years ago to stake out a spot near the Capitol. This time was different. "It sunk in that it'll probably be a long time before we have another African American president," he said. "Maybe a couple hundred years, so I didn't want to miss it."
Meghan Kubala, a 27-year-old research assistant, also didn't attend in 2009 but wanted to witness the inauguration of a president who, to her was reelected against all odds. Kubala argued that the country is better off with Obama at its helm -- though in a second term she hopes to see a more assertive approach.
“I hope that the president would put his foot down a little bit more with Republicans and the conservatives who are causing such a ruckus in Washington,” she said. “I think he would get more done if he pushed back a little more.”
Just like four years ago, the economy was the first on the minds of many. "We need more jobs and more people in them," said Christine Paquette, 55, of Mansfield, Conn., who works in unemployment compensation. The past four years have "kept us busy," she said, mentioning the multiple unemployment insurance extensions that periodically lapsed over the last four years due to opposition from Ccgressional Republicans.
Others almost lost their homes. William Steem, 47, of Oxon Hill, Md., said that a loan modification thanks to the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) -- which many have criticized for not helping enough homeowners -- allowed him to stay. "I was on the verge of default," he said, "I was working, but I got a modification, and I am still here."
Taxes have affected all working people in the aftermath of the "fiscal cliff" deal reached early this year, raising payroll taxes from their 2009 levels. "It's taking a hit for less well-off people," said Louisa Velarde, 36, of Manassas, Va. "I'm comfortable, so I don't mind paying more."
During his speech, Obama mentioned the Stonewall riots of 1969 in the same alliterated breath as Seneca Falls and Selma -- historic and unprecedented symbolism that placed the gay movement alongside the Civil Rights and women's movements. It is without question that the president, first to declare support for same-sex marriage and who signed legislation allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, has done more for gay equality than his 43 predecessors.
Yet, the fight is not over for people like R.C. Aginite, 28. He recently moved to Princeton, N.J., to live with his Spanish boyfriend of six years, who had just been granted a visa to live in the United States as a graduate student. "The last five years, the project was to get him here," he said.
He hopes that the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits binational same-sex couples from applying for citizenship, will be repealed -- either by Congress, or by the Supreme Court that is taking up the issue in March. "He is here for another five years, so hopefully we can get married before then," he said.
Though Obama shied away from speaking about gun control until December's Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., spurred him to announce 23 executive actions, several mentioned it as a challenge for his second term. "There's got to be a better solution than to arm teachers in classrooms," said Staci Scott, 33, a teacher who hails from Reston, Va. "I don't want to have to tackle a student."
Billy Mann, 44, also linked the idea of being better off than four years ago to Obama's more progressive social agenda.
"I feel like America looks and feels a lot better to most of us and that has to do with the complexion of the Supreme Court, it has to do with how we see ourselves and those around us, and it has to do with the president correcting a lot of the mistakes that were made in the years prior to his taking office," he said.
Obama reflected the tone of a more diverse United States throughout his speech. Upon the completion of a first term centered on cautiously navigating his way toward reelection, the president's address included calls for expanding gay and lesbian rights, comprehensive immigration reform and an implicit reference to gun control.
That precise ideology drew Mann to travel to Washington from Connecticut to witness Obama repeat the Oath of Office one last time.
Said Mann, "I'm just happy that he's still with us."