WASHINGTON — Pressing toward his second term, President Barack Obama touted “the importance of giving back” as he kicked off three days of inaugural celebrations Saturday with a National Day of Service.
The president, along with first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha, joined hundreds of volunteers Saturday at Burrville Elementary in one of many projects taking place across the country marking the National Day of Service. Standing in a hallway, he pulled on a pair of rubber gloves, picked up a paint brush and helped stain a bookshelf.
Looking ahead to his swearing-in, Obama told volunteers that inaugurations were “a symbol of how our democracy works and how we peacefully transfer power.”
“But it should also be an affirmation that we’re all in this together,” he said.
Obama added the day of service projects to the inaugural schedule in 2009 and hopes it will become a tradition for future presidents.
The president traveled to the service event in a black SUV carrying the District of Columbia’s “Taxation Without Representation” license plate. The White House announced earlier in the week that the president’s official vehicles would begin using the symbolic plates for the first time during inauguration weekend – four years after Obama moved to Washington to assume the presidency.
Earlier Saturday, Vice President Joe Biden, his wife, Jill, and other members of his family spent the morning filling care packages for U.S. troops overseas, veterans and first responders.
“We’ve had too much of the coarsening of our culture,” Biden said. “We’ve got to get back to reaching out to people.”
Other inaugural activities sprang up across the nation’s capital on a sun-splashed day in Washington.
Former first daughter Chelsea Clinton headlined a service summit on the National Mall, while crews finished preparations for Monday’s ceremonial swearing-in in front of the flag-draped Capitol. Hotels and government buildings along the parade route were adorned with red, white and blue bunting. White tents, trailers and generators lined the Mall.
The president will be officially sworn in for his second term Sunday in a small ceremony at the White House. He’ll take the oath of office again Monday before hundreds of thousands of people on the National Mall, followed by the traditional parade and formal balls.
Yet there is decidedly less energy surrounding Obama’s second inauguration than there was in 2009. That history-making event drew 1.8 million people for the swearing-in of the nation’s first black president.
This time, Obama takes the oath of office following a bruising presidential campaign and four years of partisan fighting. He’s more experienced in the ways of Washington. He has the gray hair and lower approval ratings to show for it.
For at least the inauguration weekend, the fiscal fights and legislative wrangling will be put aside in favor of pomp and circumstance. Some Obama supporters said the president’s second inaugural was no less historic than his first.
“There were people who said they’d never vote for an African-American president,” said Julius Cherry, a Democratic activist from Sacramento, Calif., who brought his family to Washington for the inauguration. “Now they’ve voted for him twice, and he won the popular vote and the electoral vote. That says something about his policies and his team.”
The White House sees the call to service as a way for Americans across the country to honor the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. The day Obama publicly takes the oath of office marks King’s birthday, and 2013 is the 50th anniversary of the civil rights leader’s March on Washington.
Following their service project, the first family returned to the White House. The president had no other public events planned, though Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Biden were hosting the Kids’ Inaugural Concert, an evening event paying special tribute to military spouses and children.
The crowds pouring into Washington were expected to be far smaller than they were four years ago, and there will be fewer inaugural balls for the president and first lady to attend. Still, Obama’s swearing-in at the Capitol is expected to draw up to 800,000 people, which would make it the largest second.
The president was still working on his inaugural address heading into the weekend. He isn’t expected to delve deeply into the policy objectives he’ll tackle in a second term, but the tone and theme of the speech will set the stage for the policy fights to come.
Aides said he will make the point that while the nation’s political system doesn’t require politicians to resolve all of their differences, it does require Washington to act on issues where there is common ground. He will speak about how the nation’s core principles can still guide a country that has changed immensely since its founding.
Temperatures were forecast to fall throughout the weekend and be in the 30s on Monday when the crowds gather along the parade route that will take Obama from Capitol Hill to the White House.
Despite scaling back on some of the revelry, the inauguration will be a star-studded affair. Top acts including Beyonce, Katy Perry and Brad Paisley have signed on to perform at the weekend’s events. Lady Gaga was also slated to perform at a staff ball Tuesday night.
The inauguration also is bringing thousands of Obama campaign staffers and donors to Washington, with many getting invitations for tours and other events at the White House. On Friday, the president and first lady held two private events for donors who helped finance his 2012 campaign.