Schoolteacher Patricia Cooper gazed out at the many hundreds of thousands of people lining the National Mall, moments after Barack Obama had been sworn in for the second time as president.
"The media kept saying there were going to be so many fewer people," said Cooper, 51, from Upper Marlboro, Md. "But look out there!" she beamed. "We still have a pretty big crowd."
True, the crowd was roughly half that of Obama's momentous inauguration in 2009, and the sense of history, and pure excitement, far less potent. But despite a more sober national mood, there was plenty of enthusiasm — even among people who'd been there the first time, like Cooper — and oh yes, star power, as the capital threw its marathon, once-every-four-years party.
"I was there last time, and I was just so proud to be here again this time," Cooper said. "And the weather was great!"
It was a warmer day indeed, with a noon temperature of 40 degrees. And if the day was balmier, it seemed its whole aura was mellower, too, with not only the president but his whole family looser than four years ago. Malia and Sasha, no longer adorable little girls but rather stylish young women, chatted on the podium, showing how comfortable they'd become after four years in the public spotlight, and Michelle Obama sported a hip new haircut: blunt-cut bangs. Even Chief Justice John Roberts seemed more relaxed; well, he breezed through the oath of office that he had stumbled over four years ago.
Of course, it was lost on no one that the president was renewing his oath at a somber and difficult time for the nation. A still struggling economy. The fiscal crisis. The fight over gun control, in the wake of the horrific shootings in Newtown, Conn. The continued threat of terrorism. A general sense that the country is more polarized than ever.
But for a day, the capital city celebrated. And as always, it was a marathon, with more than 12 hours of public events for the president, beginning with a morning prayer service, through a parade that went past dark, with the president still standing and clapping — and the Inaugural Balls, of course.
And though the president went home not long after 10 p.m., Washington was still buzzing. Downtown was gridlocked, as taxis, a hot commodity, tried to navigate closed-off streets. Stevie Wonder was singing at the cavernous Washington Convention Center, where the balls were held, and the Goo Goo Dolls and Ke$sha were performing at separate events elsewhere — just a few of the happenings that turned Washington into Celebrity Central for the weekend.
But the biggest celebrities? That would be Barack and Michelle Obama, and their appearances at the Inaugural Balls — three of them this year, much pared down from 2009 — were the most eagerly awaited events of the night.
The Obamas first hit the Commander in Chief ball, held like the others in the vast Washington Convention Center, where the nation also got a first glimpse of — The DRESS! Mrs. Obama again chose designer Jason Wu, this time a custom ruby-colored halter dress of chiffon and velvet that accentuated her bare shoulders and arms. And if she looked more ethereal four years ago in a frilly white Wu gown, this time she looked hipper — especially with her new, much-discussed bangs. (The hairdo was described earlier by her husband as the most significant event of Inauguration Weekend.)
The first couple — and the second, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill — took a spin on the floor with selected members of the military. And the Obamas danced romantically to "Let's Stay Together" by Al Green, sung here by Oscar-winning actress and singer Jennifer Hudson, whispering and laughing as they spun.
Meanwhile, the huge crowd at the downstairs official ball had its own entertainment. First up was Alicia Keys, who, like most of the celebrities on hand, made no secret of her affection for Obama. "Obama's on fire!" she sang, changing the lyrics of her hit song. "He's the president, and he's on fire."
Equally effusive was "Glee" actor Darren Criss, who attended the ball and had performed over the weekend at the Kids' Inaugural Concert. "I think the tagline of this weekend is that if there's anything cooler than electing the first African-American president, it's re-electing him," Criss said in an interview.
The entertainment also included the Mexican band Mana and country singer Brad Paisley, who joked that Americans have a democracy that's the envy of the world, so we celebrate by "getting drunk in a huge convention center." The audience milled around, buying drinks at the cash bar and bemoaning the skimpy snacks — until the popular, Grammy-nominated band fun. came on, with lead singer Nate Ruess' energetic vocals inspiring much of the crowd to sing their anthem "We Are Young" — even if they weren't.
Albert Wilkerson is 74, to be precise, but he was enjoying the evening immensely, he said, despite the noise, the crowds, the cash bar and food that consisted of pretzels and snack mix, $150 tickets notwithstanding.
"I like being here," said Wilkerson, who came from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. "I feel like a true American."
Caitlin Kelly wasn't quite so forgiving. "You diet for weeks to get into a dress, and then they give you pretzels?" asked Kelly, 28, of New York. "I'm gonna get tipsy fast."
It was a three-generation affair for the Sawtelle family, meanwhile, with grandmother Anna Kristina Sawtelle, 76, from Ogunquit, Maine, by way of Sweden, attending the main ball by wheelchair. Sawtelle's extended family traveled from Sweden to see the event, with her 12-year-old U.S.-born grandson — a Boy Scout from Troop 698 of Burke, Va. — serving as volunteer security for the parade.
"I am proud my grandson guarded the president,'" she said.
The Obamas soon came down and repeated their dance with Hudson, to huge cheers from the crowd and too many cellphone photos to count. After one more appearance at the third venue, the Obamas went home. But Stevie Wonder took the stage, his familiar hits — "My Cherie Amour," ''Signed, Sealed, Delivered" and more — luring a few brave souls to dance.
Over at the Harman Center for the Arts, meanwhile, there was a hipper vibe, with a big bash thrown by the Creative Coalition, an arts advocacy organization, featuring a full concert by the rock band the Goo Goo Dolls. There, everyone was up and dancing in their theater seats by the second song. At yet another venue, the 9:30 club, pop singer Ke$ha was performing, and praising Obama's speech. "I really appreciate him addressing equal rights" for gays, said Ke$ha. "It's an issue very close to my heart."
A slew of celebrities had also watched Obama's swearing-in earlier in the day. Katy Perry showed up in a chic orange coat and wide-brimmed hat. She sat next to singer/guitarist John Mayer. Up on the podium, folk icon James Taylor sang "America the Beautiful," and Kelly Clarkson performed "My Country, 'Tis of Thee."
But the biggest attraction? Ask Jada Mason, age 8, from Tulsa, Okla. "I got to see the president — AND Beyonce!" she beamed, when asked her favorite moment of the day. (Beyonce sang the national anthem.) Jada's family had taken a road trip from Tulsa in a 12-passenger van — nine family members, and three generations — to attend the inauguration. Just try telling their mother, Mattece, that this inauguration was less powerful than Obama's first.
"It was just momentous," said Mason, who is African-American. "More important than the first. Because it was based on his credentials, you know? Not someone giving us a chance because it was time to give us a chance."
Amber M. Whittington feels the same way. "This is a validation of our electing the first black president," she said, explaining why she felt the day was so important. "It wasn't a fluke."
And so, when a little boy started complaining about the cold early in the morning, the 26-year-old volunteer, who was waving people through a gate, knew just what to say.
"You will be very grateful to your parents one day," she told the boy. "This is history. You will realize that soon."
"It's worth it."
Associated Press writers Nancy Benac, Kimberly Dozier, Josh Lederman and Mesfin Fekadu contributed to this report.