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.
In a video about the inauguration released this week, Obama almost seemed to encourage people to stay away if they are worried about the conditions they would encounter. Tuesday will "mean long lines, a tough time getting around and most of all, a lot of walking on what could be a very cold winter day. Fortunately, you don't have to brave the crowds and commotion in order to participate in this celebration," he said, before listing activities on preceding days or ways to watch on TV.
The goal of accessibility helped drive Obama's decision to arrive on rail from Philadelphia, accompanied by voters he encountered on the campaign trail, a trip that planners say will allow people along the route to feel a part of the inaugural event. (The trip also echoes Abraham Lincoln's arrival for his inauguration and capitalizes, one last time, on the Amtrak commute of Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who will join the train in Wilmington, Del.)
The grass-roots renewal theme prompted Monday's planned activity. Obama will take part in community service and is urging others to do the same around the country, with a video released this week calling attention to a new Web site, http://usaservice.org, where volunteers are linked with service opportunities.
To honor those serving abroad, Michelle Obama is hosting a concert geared toward military children at the Verizon Center on Monday night, starring Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers and to be broadcast on the Disney Channel. The concert is free but not open to the general public, with tickets targeted to preselected military families and Boys & Girls Clubs.
Making things inclusive led to one of the biggest decisions: opening for the inauguration the western end of the Mall, an area that had been used as a staging area for the parade. But the principle also sparked controversy when Obama invited evangelist Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation, despite their difference on gay rights.
To get more uncredentialed faces into the prime seats, two separate essay contests were organized, with inaugural tickets as prizes. And Tuesday night, the committee has added to the usual lineup of official balls a "youth ball" and a low-cost Neighborhood Ball, which is set for broadcast on ABC and for which many tickets were directed at D.C. community groups.
The desire to keep the inauguration consistent with the campaign also drove the decision to forbid corporate or political action committee donations and limit contributions to $50,000. But the bulk of the committee's money — it hopes to raise $45 million — has come from big donors, with 420 people giving the maximum. Many voters who sent donations to Obama's campaign have complained online about the repeated requests to send money for the inauguration.
Some aspects of the event are not as novel as the Obama team suggests. The Clintons in 1993 stressed inclusivity, with a collection of booths on the Mall featuring food and crafts from around the country, a free show at the Lincoln Memorial produced by Quincy Jones and a free children's concert at the Kennedy Center. "We tried to open up the inaugural in a way it hadn't been in the past," said Debbie Willhite, who helped with that inauguration and later directed the 1997 festivities.
President Bush tried to make his 2001 inauguration as unifying as possible after the Florida recount fight, and in 2005 wrestled with how to celebrate his reelection when the war in Iraq was going poorly. Democrats chided him for the $42 million cost of the 2005 inaugural events, but Jeanne Phillips, an oil executive who chaired both inaugurations, said the figure was within reason.
"We were mindful there was a war and respectful of that fact, but it was important for the soul of the country to move forward and have an inaugural ceremony," she said. "We were low-key both times."
Still, the scale of the Obama undertaking sets it apart. The Clintons honored charity by letting people attend dress rehearsals of the presidential gala free if they brought canned goods for food banks; the Obama team is trying to create a nationwide online service network. Both the Clintons and Bushes had some massive TV screens, but not the 20 that will be lined up all the way down the Mall.
'Hope, excitement and optimism'
Above all, there are the numbers. With Obama's big campaign rallies, his team of advisers over time was able to gauge roughly how large a crowd to expect. But this is its first inauguration, and one for which precedent offers limited guidance.
Margolis dismissed the notion that all the talk of security and travel restrictions would scare people away. Visitors "are coming filled with hope, excitement and optimism, and recognize the enormity of any inaugural, so there's going to be a lot of good will," he said. "This is people who really want to be there and are willing to put up with some delays."
John Clemons, for one, is undaunted. He is a lawyer from southern Illinois who has known Obama since he was a state senator and who reserved his hotel room in Washington long before Obama clinched the Democratic nomination.
He fully expects the Obama team to "keep to their tradition of staging phenomenal events," and he sees nothing wrong with putting on a big celebration at a time of economic crisis.
"There's a kind of human nature thing where you party before the bad times, like that the Band song 'The Last Waltz,' " he said. "Well, this is the last waltz. We're going to have some hard times in 2009, so I'm spending my money now."