WASHINGTON – Four years ago, Barack Obama’s swearing-in drew a record crowd to the National Mall. There were 1.8 million people eager to witness history: the country’s first black president taking the oath of office.
Now, as Obama prepares for his second-term kickoff, the capital is pre-occupied with a looming economic crisis, exit from war and a reshuffling in Congress. Ticket demand is lower. Hotels are far from booked. And from Capitol Hill to the White House, the upcoming festivities seem to be barely on anyone’s radar.
More muted inaugural celebrations are typical with every second presidential term. But it’s almost as if Obama’s swearing-in, on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, is a been-there-done-that afterthought around town.
Perhaps Obama is a victim of his own historical significance. Perhaps it’s a sign of how far the nation has come, some 50 years after the March on Washington that drew a multitude of people calling for civil and economic rights for African-Americans.
Although inaugural planning and preparations are well under way, Obama’s advisers say they aren’t yet focusing on the swearing-in as they negotiate over the “fiscal cliff” automatic tax increases and budget cuts that will occur in January unless the White House reaches a compromise with Congress. Party planners haven’t made even the most basic of announcements yet, such as who will serve on Obama’s inaugural committee and how they will raise money. No plans are in the works for a star-studded concert like the one four years ago that kicked off the inaugural festivities.
The inauguration is thought of so little these days that there was even some confusion around the White House about when it would be held. Some aides said it would be Tuesday, Jan. 22, after the federal holiday observing King’s birthday.
In fact, the public ceremony will be on the holiday, Monday, Jan. 21 – a day set by a joint resolution of Congress months ago, before it was known who would be taking the oath. Obama’s second term automatically begins at noon Jan. 20 under the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, and he’s planning a private swearing-in at the White House.
There’s precedent for the two-pronged approach: The public ceremony in the past has been postponed for a day when Jan. 20 fell on a Sunday, such as the second inaugurations for Presidents Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower.
The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which stages all activities for the day on the Capitol grounds, has set a theme of “Faith in America’s Future” to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Capitol Dome during the Civil War. And work has begun on the platform where Obama will deliver his inaugural address. It will be the same design as in 2005 and 2009. It has 1,600 seats for members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, governors, ambassadors representing nations around the world, military leaders and the families of the president and vice president.
Beyond that, the planning is at such a preliminary stage that members of the Presidential Inaugural Committee haven’t been officially announced. They include some of the same staffers who worked on Obama’s campaign and his first inauguration. Those involved this year say to expect a similar celebration as 2009, but smaller.
Now like then, it will be up to Obama to set the tone for the day, an important moment for him to capture the world’s attention in the midst of a vigorous debate over the country’s economic future, a looming fight over immigration and conflicts across the globe.
Congressional offices will distribute roughly 250,000 tickets for people to watch in front of the podium, with members of the public able to attend without tickets down the National Mall.
Demand for tickets is predictably down on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who oversaw the congressional inaugural committee four years ago, introduced legislation back then trying to prevent scalping of the free tickets online. She said her office received 8,000 requests for tickets the first day after the 2008 election. This time, her spokeswoman said she’s received 8,500 a month later.
Last time, the ticketed crowd included scores of celebrities, with Oprah Winfrey, MTV and Nickelodeon holding special broadcasts from the capital city. An inaugural weekend concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 2009 featured appearances by Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Beyonce, Stevie Wonder, Jamie Foxx and Tiger Woods. No such event is planned this time.
Questions remain about how the inaugural committee will handle fundraising to put on the parade, balls and other celebratory events.
Four years ago, the committee tried to make good on Obama’s campaign promise to change the way business is done in Washington by refusing contributions from corporations, unions, political action committees and lobbyists and by limiting individual donations to $50,000. But some on his team want to lift that self-imposed restriction this year to make fundraising easier at a time when there’s less hype to fuel it.
Those who want to attend will find an easier time than those who came four years ago, starting with greater hotel availability.
At this time in 2008, 89 percent of rooms in Washington were rented at an average rate of $605 a night, according to Smith Travel Research. At least some desperate travelers resorted to camping outside in the winter cold or trying to find a couch for rent. This time, hundreds of ads on Craig’s List offered space for rent and hotels were still hawking their rooms, albeit at inflated prices with four-night minimums.
The Ritz Carlton, which sold out within a week of Election Day in 2008, still had nearly half its 300 rooms available a month after Obama’s re-election, putting this year on par with typical inaugural bookings.
Inaugural guests there will receive special amenities including an edible chocolate photo of the president and commemorative inauguration pillow cases, or for $100,000, they can buy a package that includes four nights in a luxury suite, a private tour of Washington and other VIP access and a one-of-a-kind diamond and ruby eagle pin that retails for $35,000.