I wasnâ€™t sure what to expect from the inauguration: an atmosphere like that of Election Night, perhaps, a night that felt like a moment of national catharsis â€“ thousands of people flooding the streets, cheering, crying, honking horns.
But Inauguration Day wasnâ€™t like that. There certainly were emotions: tears after Obama took the oath of office; smiles after the Rev. Joseph Loweryâ€™s benediction. Overall, though, the mood was more celebratory. The Foggy Bottom Metro stop looked like a street fair: Dozens of vendors sold everything from Obama t-shirts to commemorative copies of the Washington Post. They said business was slow â€“ but, in fairness, this was at 5:45 a.m.
In Georgetown, I met a group of tourists from London who flew in for the inauguration. They were literally running towards the Mall (again: this was still before sunrise). One of them was born in Sierra Leone; he said the excitement over Obamaâ€™s inauguration wasnâ€™t just an American phenomenon.
â€œAll the world is excited about this! My family canâ€™t stop talking about it,â€ he said, running off to catch up with his girlfriend before I could get his name.
All of these early risers crowded the Mall in the predawn hours. By 7:30 a.m., crowds had already filled in from 4th Street past the National Gallery.
I met a family from Woodville, Miss., a small town just across the border from Louisiana. The matriarch of the family was an African-American woman named Jackie; she flew in with her daughter and two granddaughters.
She was bundled up against the cold, a scarf and a hat and a long winter coat, but she adamantly insisted the weather didnâ€™t bother her.
â€œI grew up during the civil rights movement,â€ she said, â€œand Iâ€™m not going to let a little cold stop me from seeing this.â€
One of her teenage granddaughters was yelling excitedly into a cell phone â€“ this was early, maybe 7:30 a.m., before the cell networks were totally overloaded.
“Youâ€™ll NEVER believe where I am!â€ she said, then paused and turned to me. â€œWhere am I, exactly? Whatâ€™s this area called?â€ (It was the National Mall.)
Many of the spectators were young â€“ teenagers, college students, twenty-something professionals. Perhaps that was a function of the conditions: it was cold, after all, and spectators had to stand in thick crowds for hours. But it was also a reminder of the coalition that built Obamaâ€™s electoral victory.
â€œI wonder if Obama thinks weâ€™re pathetic for coming out this early,â€ said one girl, a George Washington University student, to a friend.
A fickle coalition, perhaps.
But they werenâ€™t all young. I met a woman named Brenda Ice, a self-described â€œold ladyâ€ who refused to give her age. She recently lost her job at a steel company in her hometown of Weirton, W.Va., and decided to take classes at a community college.
She graduated last month with an associateâ€™s degree in education. So she came to Washington to celebrate â€“ and she had a few words of advice for Obama.
â€œHe needs to fix the No Child Left Behind act,â€ she told me. â€œYoung people are our backbone. If you donâ€™t invest in them, itâ€™s like building a house on the sand. And you canâ€™t expect every child to take all these tests and be at the same level.â€
Ice wasnâ€™t the only one with advice for Obama. Many of the spectators on the Mall seemed to have their own pet issues. There was Matthew McCowan, a railroad conductor from Charlotte, N.C., who was wearily hoisting his six-year-old son onto his shoulders.
â€œDonâ€™t wear this view out, man,â€ he said. â€œYou wonâ€™t see anything until 11:30 anyway.â€
McCowan told me he supported Hillary Clinton during the primaries, but came around to Obama after his speech at the Democratic National Convention. And he had lots of praise for Obamaâ€™s Cabinet picks so far, especially Hilda Solis, his choice for labor secretary. McCowan said his rail company had to lay off workers recently because freight shipments have declined.
â€œWe have 12 tracks at the yard, and they used to be filled every day, but now weâ€™re using maybe five,â€ he said. â€œPeople stopped consuming, I guess.â€
McCowan said Obama should make sure Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid â€œfall into line.â€
â€œThey were in a defensive mode when Bush was in office,â€ he said. â€œSo now theyâ€™re going to feel the need to stand up to Obama.â€
Another North Carolinian, a middle-aged woman named Tracy, suggested Obama focus on early education: She runs a Head Start program outside of Charlotte.
â€œIt all revolves around children,â€ she said.
Interestingly, in more than two dozen interviews over eight hours on the Mall, I didnâ€™t meet one federal employee. Perhaps they were all enjoying the day off before the new boss takes over?