Obama's Inauguration Planners Strive to Set the Right Tone

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 17, 2009

When a train pulls out of Philadelphia today carrying President-elect Barack Obama on a symbolic journey to Washington, it will set off a four-day inaugural celebration of unprecedented ambition that has been calibrated to strike a balance between marking a moment many thought would never come and setting a tone that suits the sober economic times.

The event's planners want to conjure optimism about the country's ability to rebound from a deep downturn, yet do not want to create unrealistic expectations for Obama -- a tension that will dominate the early months of his administration. So they have tried to take into account the reality of the times while satisfying the desire to celebrate the first black president in the nation's history and the first Democratic commander in chief in eight years.

"It is a celebration, so it should be a joyous and festive moment. But this is also a serious moment for the country, so we're constantly going to be trying to communicate both those elements," said Jim Margolis, a consultant who produced Obama's campaign ads and is helping to oversee the inaugural planning.

"We didn't go out with an objective to say, 'When an act walks out on stage there can't be scenery or it has to be austere, and we're only going to let one person with an acoustic guitar sing into a microphone.' There will be strong, well-performed events, which is appropriate in an inaugural," he said. "What we're trying to do . . . is show that we're cognizant of what the nation is facing but that we also make sure people are provided a wonderful entertainment experience."

After weeks of anticipation, that experience will officially begin today, as the first of hundreds of thousands of out-of-town visitors descend on a Washington that, despite frigid temperatures, was making final preparations for their arrival. Obama, who was in Ohio to speak at a factory yesterday, will not hold a public event when he arrives at Union Station this evening but will be greeted just up the road by an expected 20,000 or more at Baltimore's War Memorial Plaza.

The official welcoming event in the District will be tomorrow, a star-studded show in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Planners will try to infuse the celebrity gala with sobriety by having the musicians and actors deliver thematically linked performances instead of just a collection of greatest hits -- though those selected to give readings include Hollywood stars not known for their gravity. To further ground the celebrations in the needs of the moment, the main theme Monday will be community service -- that is, until nightfall, when revelers will head to a slew of inaugural eve galas.

Trying to set just the right message throughout it all is a team that made its mark pulling off big campaign events that pushed the bounds of traditional political stagecraft: an Obama address before 200,000 people in Berlin after a presidential-style world tour; the Democratic convention acceptance speech at a football stadium; a half-hour TV special that ended by cutting to a live shot of Obama speaking at a rally.

Driving those events was the desire to make Obama, a young upstart running against a seasoned opponent, look presidential, a task that risked his appearing presumptuous. Mark Squier, a consultant who helped produce the convention for the Democratic National Committee, said the Obama team was adept at matching the theatrics to the moment.

At the convention, "it was, 'Hey, we're still a movement that can draw 80,000 to a stadium, but let's also be clear that what we're departing into is something that's incredibly serious: the presidency,' " he said.

Now that Obama is about to move into the White House, the same impresarios who built him up in stature are in some sense seeking to achieve the opposite by signaling that even as he takes power, he remains the same person who started out as a community organizer and launched his campaign in small Iowa towns. Planners say the first priority of Obama and his wife, Michelle, was that the inauguration be as inclusive as possible, in keeping with a campaign driven by grass-roots support.

"We want to make sure that people understand that those core beliefs that fueled the campaign . . . that none of that has changed," Margolis said.

But the expected size of the crowds and the tough security measures have raised concerns about how open the celebration will really be. The inaugural committee's tight grip on information has also made the planning process less than transparent.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company