Long before US President Barack Obama was publicly sworn into office for his second term on Monday, Charlene Shariff was out on the streets of Washington working the crowd.
“Get your blue and white pom-poms! the president will wave back at you personally if you have one of these!” she called as she sold the pom-poms, joking with spectators, many of them excited and giddy as they made their way on the giant stretch of land known as the National Mall to catch a glimpse of the official swearing-in ceremony on the steps of the US Capitol.
Shariff, a history teacher from Jersey City, New Jersey, came to Washington to take part in history, she said.
“This president has come a long way, and now that he’s won a second term, children in third world countries all over the world will hear about the first black president in America and know that if they keep pushing, their dreams can come true.”
A few blocks away, crowds of enthusiastic supporters swarmed into the public viewing area that offered – for the lucky ones – a bird’s eye view of the Capitol where Obama would take the public oath of office for the final time.
As the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir began to sing the patriotic “Battle Hymn of the Republic?,” thousands of people raised their flags and began to sing along, a few wiping tears away.???
Toward the back of the crowd, Marie Gibbs joined in softly, singing the patriotic words: “Glory, Glory Hallelujah, His truth is marching on.”
“I’m just so happy to be here,” said Gibbs who arrived in Washington on Sunday from Mobile, Alabama.
Gibbs is standing in the shadow of the Washington Monument, almost a mile from the site of the ceremony.
Never mind that for Gibbs and other vertically challenged people in the crowd, their view of this moment in history looks an awful lot like the back of someone else’s head.
Never mind that the up close and personal picture of Obama at the swearing-in ceremony on the jumbo screen is fading in and out.
Never mind that the giant audio speakers broadcasting the ceremony to the crowd estimated at 600,000 to 800,000 people sounds at times like a bad cell phone call.
For Obama’s supporters – and based on the outcome of the November presidential election, that means just over 51 percent of Americans – this is a day steeped in tradition that represents a ringing endorsement of Obama’s first time in office.
“It means more this time around,” said Bobby Lowe, from Montgomery, Alabama. He staked out a place on the mall at 8:30 a.m. Monday, and wished he’d gotten a better spot.
“But I can look at a history book 15-20 years from now and see a picture of this and say, ‘I was there,’ he said.
For all the pomp and circumstance – and actually, it is all pomp and circumstance, since Obama was officially sworn-in during a private ceremony on Sunday because the US Constitution requires the president to formally take office on Jan. 20 – this is an event held every four years when a president is elected or reelected.
It dates back to 1789 when George Washington became the first US president.
As Obama began to speak, the crowd erupted in the kind of cheers normally reserved for rock stars, chanting “Obama! Obama!” so loudly that his first few words were hard to hear.
As he mentioned the Constitution, someone quipped, “Gee, I wonder if he’s going to mention the Second Amendment,” a reference to the looming fight over gun control in the United States and the amendment that protects the right of people to keep and bear arms.
After a hard-fought election and a bitter battle over the nation’s budget, the country remains sharply divided over everything from gun safety and the economy to immigration.
But by and large, this is not a day for protests, and opponents are hard to spot here.
“I never thought I’d see a person of color elected president but to have it happen twice, it’s just confirmation this country is going in a different direction,” said Lewis Marshall of Staten Island, New York.
“Republicans are probably out drinking today,” he joked, “but I hope they are rethinking their focus and realizing that the demographics of this country have changed and their message also needs to change.”
Before the traditional parade began a few hours after the swearing-in ceremony, there was plenty of time for hard at work entrepreneurs to showcase democracy and free enterprise.
Impromptu vendors sprang up on street corners and cement barricades, with everything from t-shirts and key chains to calendars, cardboard cutouts for photos and even inauguration condoms, said to be selling like hotcakes by a vendor who did not want to give his name.
“Make her feel like your first lady, even if she’s your second or third!” he called.
The presidential parade wound its way from the Capitol, and by mid-afternoon crowds were craning their necks, hoping for a glimpse of Obama, riding in a car surrounded by security.
As the presidential vehicle came into view, a cheer went up with thousands jumping and cheering, running along with the vehicle until finally, it came to a stop and Obama got out to walk a portion of the parade route.
“I can’t believe it! He’s walking right there in front of me!” said a young girl watching the scene and waving her heart out.
Despite the planning — and there was a lot of planning — it is hard to keep such monumental events on a tightly controlled schedule. So when the parade started late and ran much longer than expected, and day turned into night, it left the floats and bands at the end of the long line playing to near empty bleachers with a few scant folks determined to see it all, straining in the dark to get their final view of history.