Barack Obama inauguration

Before the dawn sky pinkened over the Washington monument on the morning of the 57th presidential inauguration, before the soldiers turned out in fatigues and combat boots to line the boulevards leading up to the Capitol, before the crowds amassed with their Obama earmuffs and badges and tote-bags to swarm over the National Mall, before volunteers began handing out American flags for spectators to wave as Beyoncé, Jimmy Carter, the first family and other VIPs took their seats on the dais behind bullet-proof glass … before that, the re-elected President had a job to do.

He had to get the oath right.

Last time around, in 2009, he and Chief Justice John Roberts flubbed the words. Obama’s advisers decided it would be prudent to re-do the ritual the following day, to guard against a legal challenge to the validity of his presidency.

This time around, there were no such wobbles as Obama took the oath of office on Sunday, as the US Constitution requires. After the private ceremony in the White House, his youngest daughter, Sasha, was picked up on a microphone reassuring him: “Good job, Daddy — you didn’t mess up.”

At the public inauguration on Monday, US time, Obama needed to tread a fine line between celebration and hubris, for a candidate that is both more tarnished and more tested than he was in 2008. A recent New York Times/CBS poll found that 51% of Americans approve of Obama, compared with 62% at the beginning of his first term. Of all the post-war, two-term presidents, only George W. Bush had similarly low ratings at this point in their careers.

The atmosphere on the Mall today was one of dutiful solidarity rather than joy. “I think we’re more relieved than euphoric,” said Joan Van De Moortel, 68, the director of a care services company in Washington.

Sadar Aziz, a 41-year-old-Pakistani immigrant, had set up an easel on the gravel and was painting a large acrylic portrait of the President’s face, fading into a billowing American flag. “I’m trying to portray the way change happens over time,” he said. “We expect a lot from the president, but people aren’t very radical.”

Aziz pointed to Obama’s support for immigration reform — particularly the DREAM Act, which would grant legal status to some undocumented minors in the US — as a big mark in the President’s favour.

Obama’s rhetoric was strong but not soaring; he is not a serial turner of memorable phrases. As The New Yorker‘s George Packer puts it, “he disdains the glibness of sound bites, for very good reason but also out of an incorrigible and self-undermining need to rise above politics”.

But what the speech did, it did well. In it, Obama mounted a vigorous defence of a robust role for government in promoting the welfare of the American people. “Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action,” he declared, in a dig at House Republicans who have pushed the idea that equality and prosperity are mutually exclusive, particularly in their negotiations over the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling.

Obama raised climate change as a major challenge, and he gave the issues of pay equity for women, and of marriage equality for gay men and lesbians, a prominent billing; Obama’s speech was an attempt to bring social justice back to the centre of the political conversation in America, and to mobilise the public around the policy battles that it would entail.

A stark reminder of the relevance of this vision was not far away. As the crowd streamed away from the Mall after the proceedings, a solitary homeless man, swaddled in a felt coverlet, huddled over an air vent for warmth, next to the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice building on Constitution Avenue.