On Monday we saw a glimpse of the American way as the band played "Hail to the Chief" and the flags waved. It was pomp and circumstance even in circumstances less than ideal.
With millions of people still unemployed in the wake of stubborn economic troubles, the political fight is too hard and too costly to let a presidential inauguration for a second term pass without putting on a show. Besides, making a grand gesture to "bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution" and to "affirm the promise of our democracy" -- as President Barack Obama said in his speech -- does serve to remind Americans of greater matters than their political disputes.
In President Obama's case, what occurred before the flag-bedecked backdrop of the Capitol really was a show. To fulfill the constitutional mandate that a president be sworn in on Jan. 20, Mr. Obama had taken the oath of office Sunday in the Blue Room of the White House with Chief Justice John Roberts presiding. Both president and chief justice did it again Tuesday in service of the spectacle.
It was a show, however, that never soared. Although it was held on the public holiday celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., history did not lie as heavy on the proceedings as it did four years ago when Mr. Obama became our first African-American president. While the crowds were still counted in the hundreds of thousands for this second inauguration, their numbers were down from last time. This was a largely respectful and interested crowd, not an exuberant one.
That was obvious in the reaction to Mr. Obama's speech. With few exceptions, he received mostly polite applause, and this from a crowd in which his supporters surely outnumbered his critics. While Mr. Obama has remarkable oratorical gifts, his performance on this special day seemed flat. While he took as his inspiration the words of the Declaration of Independence, especially that all men are created equal, it was as if he was defensively answering unseen critics and never quite found his focus.
No matter. His speech may have been forgettable but his second term does not depend for success on that. It is also the American way that actions speak louder than words in the long run -- and now, the formality done, he must start to meet that challenge.