Steep drop in viewership was typical of second-term inaugurations.
The inauguration setting was the same, but in four short years our unsettled politics have moved the mood from heady and historic to headstrong and histrionic. Away from Washington, the public has picked up on the vibe and has tuned out. So it's not surprising that 46 percent fewer viewers tuned in to witness President Obama's second swearing-in than watched his first in 2009.
About 20.6 million managed to tune in on Monday, compared with 37.8 million four years ago. That 2009 audience -- the second-largest since Nielsen started keeping count in 1969 -- reflected the fact that many Americans, regardless of party, saw the inauguration of the nation's first African-American president as a moment marking the inspiring progress our experiment in democracy has made.
But it seems that four years of Beltway constriction have made many weary of Washington's ways. Can they be blamed? Just this week, for instance, what passed as progress was a three-month stay of execution from a self-inflicted fiscal crisis. And that's just one example of extraordinary partisan paralysis stopping progress on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. So despite Monday's inauguration taking place on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, when many more people were at home, especially schoolkids, the quadrennial inaugural drew the second-smallest recorded audience.
The reaction from those who did watch reflected the reason others didn't: Obama's speech was heard as an overdue pro-progressive agenda by many on the left, but as a confirmation to conservatives that his latent liberalism was finally freed from electoral constraint.
This split (along with allegations that Beyoncé lip-synced the national anthem), became a top topic on talk radio, op-ed pages, online opinion sites and, of course, cable TV news networks.
A partisan divide was apparent in the cable networks' results as well. During the inauguration, for instance, Fox News, which usually wins the overall ratings race, was third with about 1.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen ratings data obtained by the New York Times. MSNBC was second with about 2.3 million viewers. CNN, usually a ratings laggard, was the leader with 3.1 million.
Fox's drop from four years ago was 75 percent, according to the Times, while MSNBC's was only 25 percent. CNN, which has often flailed and failed in an increasingly partisan news environment, sunk 61 percent.
Of course, this isn't the first time a second-term president has seen initial interest flag. George W. Bush had a similar steep decline, from 29 million viewers in 2001 to 15.5 million in 2005. Bill Clinton's second inauguration rating was lower, too. But it dropped less dramatically, from 29.7 million in 1993 to 21.6 million in 1997.
Even Ronald Reagan's ratings declined for his second swearing-in, despite his landslide. About 25 million watched his inauguration in 1985, compared with 41.8 million in 1981.
Reagan's first inauguration audience was the largest ever recorded. Part of that was his popularity after the watershed election of 1980. And part of it was the unique circumstances: There are slow news days, and then there was Jan. 20, 1981, when just minutes after Reagan's inauguration, Iran released the remaining hostages from the U.S. embassy.
No such dramatics for Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush, who succeeded him in 1989. That year, 23.3 million watched. The era's only other one-termer, Jimmy Carter, conversely, captivated 34.1 million viewers in 1977.
The only president to set precedent by increasing viewers the second time around was Richard Nixon. In a reflection of his landslide victory over George McGovern, more than 32.9 million watched in 1973, compared with 27 million in 1969. But this high-water mark was soon to be marred by Watergate, a fate no president wants to relive.
Whether the declining interest is standard second-term stuff or something more profound about the public tuning out Washington in action (or, more fittingly, inaction) will get another test on Feb. 12, when Obama gives his State of the Union address. At minimum, a more-captive audience -- Congress -- will be watching to see if Obama's legislative agenda matches Monday's progressive rhetoric, or if he was doing a bit of lip-syncing, too.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer.