BRADENTON BEACH — Susan Hall’s gaze was fixated on the projection screen, her hands clasped as in prayer as she watched televised history unfold Tuesday.
When Barack Obama finished reciting the oath to become the nation’s 44th president, the part-time Anna Maria resident shed tears — not of despair or sadness, but hope and happiness.
“This kind of change is a miracle,” she said moments after Obama concluded his first presidential address. “This is once in a lifetime.”
She was among more than 200 people who packed the BeachHouse Restaurant during an inauguration watch party sponsored by the Anna Maria Island Democratic Club.
Organizers had expected half as many to show up and had to turn people away in the days preceding the event, said Francine Slack, a board member.
“We’ve could have had twice as many,” she said.
Those who made it to the party snacked on coconut shrimp, mahi mahi and a giant American flag cake topped with a mix of blackberries, blueberries and strawberries.
They accorded rock-star status on Obama, posing for photographs next to a life-sized cardboard cutout of him and wearing Obama campaign buttons and stickers. They also loudly applauded and cheered when Obama was introduced, and silently listened in rapt attention during his first speech as the nation’s first African-American president.
His words resonated among the crowd, who called Obama’s ascension to the presidency a historic step for the country.
“When he spoke about how far we’ve come, from when African-Americans couldn’t be served at the lunch counter to holding the highest office in America, that speaks for itself,” said June Buonanno of Bradenton, who was there with her husband, Mike. “It’s beautiful. It’s great to see America is growing up.”
Yet some tensions still lingered just below the surface: When Obama thanked outgoing President George W. Bush for his eight years of service, some in the Washington, D.C., crowd applauded, but the BeachHouse audience was quiet.
“I haven’t liked the policies of the last eight years,” Mike Buonanno said. “We’ve gone from a great nation to a debtor nation with two wars I don’t agree with.” But the day’s overall mood was celebratory.
“What a great day for America is all I have to say,” an exuberant Fran Zacchero said. “It’s like a breath of fresh air, like the skies have opened up and we now have something to look forward to.”