President Obama’s second inauguration is still a big deal — just not as big, planners say
By Fredrick Kunkle and Annie Gowen,
The thrill is back for many Americans as President Obama’s second inauguration approaches — though maybe a bit less intense.
This inauguration’s celebration will be shorter, and almost certainly smaller and less expensive, than the gala that drew nearly 2 million people to witness the first time an African American president took the oath of office.
There will be no massive rock concert on the Mall, as there was last time, and there will be only two official evening balls, including one dedicated to military personnel, instead of 10. Even the massive security cordon, which seemed to shut down most of downtown Washington four years ago, will be relatively modest.
But this year’s inauguration will fall on the national holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and that coincidence, along with an enduring fascination with the first family, is expected to boost attendance above any other second-term inaugurations.
And then there are people who stayed away four years ago for one reason or another and who want to make sure they don’t miss history this time.
“I watched on TV, and I wished I was in D.C.,” said Kaye Lin, 26, a producer with Voice of America who is hosting four friends, so far, at her townhouse near the District’s Eastern Market. “This is still as historic and as memorable as before. When is the next time you’re going to see a black man be reinaugurated and get his second term? It might be a long time. So I’m right there.”
Planners have spent months choreographing what one Air Force general called “quite a ballet” to guide the president’s steps and an army-sized support staff through the oath-taking ceremony at the U.S. Capitol, a grand parade down Pennsylvania Avenue and the events that follow.
The festivities will begin the Saturday before the 57th inauguration with a National Day of Service — which Obama is eager to make a permanent tradition — and wind down with a national prayer service the following Tuesday at Washington National Cathedral. As before, a huge security detail of military personnel and law enforcement officers, led by the U.S. Secret Service, will operate checkpoints, close roads and manage crowds.
Members of the newly sworn 113th Congress will be handing out about 250,000 tickets, although this time there will be no purple-coded ones — and, organizers hope, no repeat of the “Purple Tunnel of Doom,” an episode in which thousands bearing purple color-coded tickets were inadvertently blocked in 2009 from reaching their seats on the Capitol lawn.
Obama’s second time around will also have some firsts, or at least near-firsts. He will become the first president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to take the oath of office four times. That’s because of the do-over performed after Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. flubbed his lines during Obama’s first inauguration, and because Jan. 20, the date prescribed for taking the oath, falls on a Sunday this time.
Although hotel bookings have not kept pace with bookings last time, when there was a 90 percent occupancy rate on inauguration eve, tourism officials say the tempo picked up after the holidays. Still up for grabs for well-heeled revelers were faux presidential suites at the Willard InterContinental with a view of Pennsylvania Avenue. The “Oval Suites,” featuring marble-floored entryways and a design based on the Oval Office, were going for $5,700 a night, with a four-night minimum and a $27,000 catering minimum.
Metro will expand service to handle crowds, and there will be a water taxi running from Alexandria. But Amtrak says it expects business as usual, and Virginia Railway Express won’t be running at all.
Doug Anderson, 55, who owns a charter bus company in Greenville, Pa., said nine groups have plunked down $2,000 each for 56-seat buses to Washington, compared with 25 buses last time.
“It was a monumental event when President Obama was initially elected, and it was a turning point in a number of ways in the national political arena. This year, it wasn’t quite as dramatic or climactic as it was the first time,” Anderson said.
Four years ago, inauguration planners initially braced for as many as 4 million people. An estimated 1.8 million people attended, making it the largest event ever in Washington.
Elliott Ferguson, president of Destination DC, a nonprofit group that promotes District tourism, said his organization is working on an estimate of 800,000 visitors this time, which is still higher than attendance generally expected for second inaugurals. President George W. Bush’s drew about 400,000 people in 2005.
Last time around, the cost was difficult to pin down because of the many groups involved. Government officials and media organizations estimated that Obama’s first inauguration’s total cost was about $150 million, including $54.3 million in private money raised by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, a principal organizer of events before and after the oath-taking ceremony.
The Presidential Inaugural Committee has not yet come up with an estimated cost for this year’s festivities.
The Constitution doesn’t have much to say about inaugural events, prescribing only such basics as the time and date and the wording of the oath. Everything else has evolved through tradition. And like all rituals, the quadrennial exercise creates tensions between the need to adhere to tradition and the desire to acknowledge cultural or political change.
Every gesture has the potential to create meaning — sometimes by adding something, sometimes by omission — in a ceremony whose overarching purpose is to display a peaceful transition of power, or its peaceful renewal, in a democracy.
“I think what an inauguration does is it gives you constancy, and you get some comfort in it. The idea of beginning anew is a very powerful idea, even if it’s a second term,” said Mark R. Kennedy, a former member of Congress who heads the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. “They all, perhaps, have twists.”
Obama’s inauguration festivities will begin, as four years ago, with a National Day of Service on Saturday, Jan. 19, whose centerpiece will be a tented service fair on the Mall. Visitors will be encouraged to sign up and pledge a year’s effort to one or more of about 100 local and national community organizations.
On Sunday, the president will take the oath in a private ceremony; on Monday, he will repeat it in public. Roberts will give the oath to the president both times. Vice President Biden will receive the oath from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic appointed to the high court.
This will be the fifth time that a president takes the oath in private and repeats the process in public because of a quirk in the calendar, said Beth Hahn, historical editor in the U.S. Senate Historical Office. Four presidents — Ronald Reagan, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Woodrow Wilson and Rutherford B. Hayes — took the oath in private and then again in public because the constitutionally mandated date for the oath fell on a Sunday, a tradition grounded in the desire to honor Sunday as the sabbath.
After the oath-taking ceremony Monday, the president will attend a congressional luncheon and then lead the parade from the Capitol to the White House.
The Obamas will then attend the Inaugural Ball and the Commander-in-Chief’s Ball, both of which will be held at the Washington Convention Center.
On Monday, Metrorail will open an hour early, at 4 a.m., and service will be provided for an extra two hours, until 2 a.m. Tuesday. To help offset the costs of expanded service, Metro will charge peak fares until 9 p.m. Metrobus will operate weekday rush-hour service in the morning, followed by an early afternoon rush. Many routes will have detours related to inaugural events. There are also plans to accommodate an expected 2,500 motorcoaches and tour buses.
Lori Aratani, Mark Berman, Dana Hedgpeth and Luz Lazo contributed to this report.