With the economy still shaky, the White House and Congress at war over looming tax hikes and budget cuts, and Obama focusing on a second-term agenda, there may be less glitz, glamour and even vehicular gridlock during his inaugural weekend next month.
The president is looking “very mindfully and deliberately at a different tone” for 2013, without “quite the amount of celebrations you saw four years ago,” said one administration official.
But while the number of events may drop, the amount of money being solicited to pay for them has jumped exponentially. After spending more than $1 billion to reelect the president, team Obama is ditching its 2009 cap of $50,000 on inauguration donations. Gone, too, is the ban on corporate money to underwrite the Jan. 19-21 celebration that cost $53 million four years ago. The names of donors will be public, officials said, and they will be vetted to ensure, for example, that financial bailout recipients who haven’t repaid their loans won’t be bankrolling the extravaganza. PACs and lobbyists are still barred from giving.
The debate will continue over the ethics of having exclusive events for high-rollers who give $250,000 to $1 million: Proponents note previous presidents accepted large private and corporate donations; critics say it looks a whole lot like buying access.
Meanwhile, Washington’s traffic and tourism gurus are projecting a much lower turnout. Four years ago, 1.8 million people thronged the Mall to see America’s first black president take the oath of office. Maybe half that number are expected this time around, reflecting what veteran event planner Carolyn Peachey calls the “been there, done that, same old, same old” effect. Both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton presided over lower-key second inaugurations.
And then there is the current economy.
“The fiscal cliff is a real phenomenon,” said Jill Collins, a public relations consultant for several downtown restaurants. “We know people are holding back to see what happens before they commit to spending a lot of money” hosting parties.
This is not to say that law firms, lobby shops, corporations, publications, trade groups and nonprofits won’t entertain clients, colleagues, advertisers, donors and friends, especially if they can snag prime viewing space for the oath-taking and parade. Hundreds of events — from breakfasts to after-parties — are set to start as early as Jan. 18 and run through Jan. 21.
Oh, and a few lawmakers may even use the presence of so many wealthy Democrats from around the country to hold their own discreet political fundraisers, said one hospitality industry executive, requesting anonymity for fear of alienating congressional clients.
The official Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC) is just getting cranked up. Actress and Obama campaign activist Eva Longoria was named one of four inauguration co-chairs. Several key presidential campaign operatives will oversee everything from the parade to the “official” inaugural balls (there were 10 four years ago).
As in 2009, the Obamas are urging a countrywide day of service on Saturday, Jan. 19, “to honor our shared values and celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” Since the constitutionally mandated Jan. 20 inauguration date falls on Sunday, the president will take the oath of office privately in a small ceremony. The very public swearing-in and inaugural address occur on Monday — which is also Martin Luther King Day — at the west front the U.S. Capitol on a platform built to hold 1,600 VIPs.
Then comes the bipartisan luncheon inside the Capitol under the aegis of the House-Senate committee that oversees the actual swearing-in ceremonies for the president and vice president as well as the lunch. One can only imagine Obama leaning over to John Boehner and asking, “Mr. Speaker, would you please pass the budget, er, the butter.”
As they did four years ago, the Obamas may walk a least a few blocks of the parade route toward the elaborate reviewing stand being built in front of the White House. Behind the First Couple will come the marching bands, drill teams and dancers from every state and territory.
Jimmy Carter revived the walking tradition in 1977, a time of crippling stagflation and double-digit interest rates. He also insisted on a “people’s inauguration,” with no event costing more than $25 and many of them free.
“It was very much in keeping with the campaign he ran, as the Washington outsider who told voters, ‘I will never lie to you,’ ” recalled Jerry Rafshoon, a Washington-based TV and film producer who was creative director of Carter’s inauguration. “We wanted to have all the things that were there before, but made accessible to the most people.”
To finance the traditional pre-inaugration gala, for which big spenders could no longer pay $5,000 to $10,000 for box seats, Rafshoon said broadcast rights were sold to CBS for $3 million. That was enough to produce the show, pay expenses for all the stars (they worked for free) and keep tickets at $25, with enough money left over to keep monuments and museums on the mall open late for thousands of visitors.
For first-time inaugural celebrants, perhaps the most anticipated, least understood and thus likeliest to disappoint event remains those inaugural balls. Though the PIC has not released a total number, one unofficial site is guessing “roughly 10.”
Whatever the total, each mass gathering will feature top entertainers. But a life-changing, enchanted evening an inaugural ball generally is not, whether held in a museum, hotel or the city’s cavernous convention center. All tend to be overcrowded, with few places to sit, not much to eat and maddeningly long lines at coat checks, cash bars and rest rooms.
Sure, the First Couple will drop by for the requisite victory dance and thank-you, but within 15 or 20 minutes, the Obamas will have dashed back to their limo for the ride to the next ball, and the next one after that.
Which brings us to the unofficial balls and galas bookending the swearing-in. Some are sponsored by state societies, permanent organizations that encourage domestic expats to keep up the old home ties in Washington. The most famous is the Texas State Society’s “Black Tie and Boots” extravaganza, with 1,200 revelers expected on Jan. 19.
Other groups–environmentalists, ambassadors, Native Americans, the entertainment industry, peace activists, entrepreneurs, and the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender communities among others–have scheduled balls and galas for their members and backers. And of course there are the private parties, which range from intimate dinners in swank homes to larger gatherings in Washington’s hottest clubs, hotels and restaurants.
But even as inauguration planning continues, the possibility of the country falling over the fiscal precipice still looms.
“If they haven’t settled the financial cliff by then,” suggests Rafshoon, “Obama probably ought to have Congress meet and work through the inauguration.”
Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com columnist and reporter who writes widely about politics, culture, design and 21st century manners. This will be the 10th inauguration she has covered.