WASHINGTON (Reuters) - On a bitterly cold Inauguration Day in January 2009, Barack Obama rode in a tank-like limousine to the U.S. Capitol, giving Americans on television and in Washington their first glimpse of an African-American assuming the trappings of the presidency.
Four years and another election later, the ride to the Capitol was less historic, but still a poignant reminder of Obama's place in history.
The Democratic president won re-election on November 6, beating Republican Mitt Romney despite a difficult economic recovery.
"I feel like it's a vindication of the trust of the American people in a different kind of president - an African-American president, a biracial president - who ... didn't come up through the old boys' network," said Judy Fardig, a volunteer for Obama's campaign, who traveled to Washington from Portland, Oregon, for the inauguration.
"For me, it's a vindication of what might have been just a flash in the pan the first time according to a lot of people. But it really wasn't."
Fardig believed the day was even more significant than it was four years ago, a theme emphasized by Obama on the campaign trail as he tried to convince voters to give him four more years to complete his mission.
As he and his wife, Michelle, left the White House and made their way again to the Capitol for Monday's inauguration, they passed crowds more modest in size than in 2009 and less exuberant. Bleachers assembled for the parade were still empty as the motorcade trudged along Pennsylvania Avenue. Along the way, some protesters carried signs such as "God hates Obama."
From inside the Capitol, the president's walk to the podium was somber. But from the podium, the energy of the crowd was palpable. Early estimates suggested the crowd would be no more than 800,000, but an inauguration official estimated it might have been around 1 million.
In his address, Obama seemed to express the same sense of vindication felt by his supporters.
In a look back at U.S. history, the president marveled at how the United States had developed over more than 200 years, but his words reflected his campaign's values as much as the arc of American history.
"Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play," he said, in what might have been a reference to controversial financial regulation reforms he pushed through Congress during his first term.
"Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life's worst hazards and misfortune," he said, in an apparent nod to social programs supported by Democrats.
He made history once again - this time by making a clear reference to his support for gay marriage.
At the close of the ceremony, after he and Vice President Joe Biden took their oaths of office, the president stood and shook hands with guests as he made his way back into the Capitol.
Before going all the way inside, he paused, looked back at the crowd, and smiled. It would be his last inauguration, and he clearly wanted to savor it.
After a long lunch with congressional leaders, the Obamas emerged and climbed back into their fortified limousine. The bleachers had filled and the parade route was crowded with spectators bundled in heavy coats and scarves.
Shouts of "Obama, Obama!" and "Four more years!" rang out as the first couple waved vigorously from the car.
Twice, they emerged to walk for long stretches in the open air, holding hands and smiling broadly, repeating an image first etched in history four long years ago.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)
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