For all the banners and bunting, the hoorays and hoopla, the celebration of Barack Obama's inauguration is imbued with meaning that extends far beyond the historic ascension of the nation's first black president. A country mired in crisis seems to be reaching for something beyond the man or the moment.
Obama himself recognizes the importance of Tuesday's swearing-in and a long weekend of inaugural goings-on. This is his opportunity to set what he hopes will be an enduring narrative for his new administration.
From Saturday's whistle-stop tour carrying the president-in-waiting from Philadelphia to the nation's capital, to Wednesday's presidential prayer service in the soaring, gothic sanctuary of the Washington National Cathedral, Obama wants to send a clear and high-minded message: His administration will knock down barriers between government and the governed and usher in a new era for the country in a time of great tumult.
'Challenges so vast'
"Only a handful of times in our history has a generation been confronted with challenges so vast," Obama said Saturday as he launched the inaugural pomp from Philadelphia's grand-but-gritty downtown train station. He laid out the problems in stark relief: A faltering economy. Two wars. A planet warming from unsustainable dependence on oil.
As an antidote, he offered up a measure of his unfailingly hopeful resolve: "While our problems may be new," he assured, "what is required to overcome them is not."
As he has throughout his nearly two-year quest for the White House, Obama is infusing his inaugural celebration with references to Abraham Lincoln, so closely associated with Obama's home state of Illinois and his race-transcending quest for the presidency. A retraced train route into the nation's capital. A shared Bible. Even the giant limestone-and-marble Lincoln Memorial figures repeatedly in Obama's inaugural festivities.
Obama's constant linkage could have as much to do with Lincoln's signature call for the country to choose unity over division as with his Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery.
Black Americans seem naturally at ease with a black president who ran for office while seldom emphasizing issues of race.
"I'm pretty sure he's going to try to help the black community," said Lance Major, a 42-year-old student mentor who considered the promise of Obama's presidency over a half-smoke at Ben's Chili Bowl on a recent day in Washington. "But, you know, he can do that for us because he is not at all focused on skin color."
Fresh approach to leadership?
In a time of extraordinary challenges, Obama's promises of a fresh approach to leadership — not to mention his youthful demeanor and postcard-perfect family — give Americans a reason to hope.
Polls show that people have a higher level of confidence in Obama at the outset of his presidency than for any recent commander in chief — even Ronald Reagan, who also won a landslide victory during a period of economic uncertainty. According to an Associated Press-GfK poll, 65 percent of Americans think Obama will be an above-average president or better. More than 70 percent believe the economy will improve during his first year.
For many blacks, Obama's victory is their victory, shattering a painful racial ceiling. And for many whites, it is a bit of redemption to have said as dramatically as can be said in the United States that skin color no longer has to hold a person back.
Obama used his radio address Saturday to preview the themes of his inauguration, certain to be expounded upon in his much-anticipated speech on Tuesday.
He took particular note of the peaceful transfer of power from George W. Bush's administration to his, a transition that saw the outgoing and incoming teams work cooperatively, often literally side-by-side, in ways never seen before.
It could be a model for the globe, Obama suggested.
"Even today billions of people around the world cannot imagine their leaders giving up power without strife or bloodshed," he said.
Obama pledged to answer the nation's hunger for big ideas, pointing to history as evidence.
"All Americans hold within our hands the promise of a new beginning," he said. "Our challenges can be met if we summon the spirit that has sustained our democracy since George Washington took the first oath of office."
Openness and community
If Obama's campaign themes could be reduced to two key words — "hope" and "change" — his inauguration resonated with themes of openness and community.
In daily e-mails to donors, volunteers and supporters, Obama's aides encouraged broad participation in the festivities, whether from among the 2 million expected to flock to Washington or in living rooms around the nation.
At every juncture, Americans were asked to get involved, through volunteering in their own communities on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday — as Obama and his family will do — or in some other way. People have been invited to get inaugural information text messages on their cell phones, to receive e-mails about community service projects, to submit policy ideas that will compete to be among those presented directly to Obama.
A similar high-tech call to old-fashioned community participation helped Obama defeat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during the hard-fought Democratic primaries and then Republican Sen. John McCain in November. So there's no doubt that the lofty goal of accessibility — bringing floods of e-mail addresses to the Obama folks — was not the only reason they chose this approach for the inaugural. With an eye already on 2012's re-election campaign, they also want to make sure voters remain engaged with Obama's organization.
And for all the talk about regular folks, the inauguration, like Washington itself, is about money, too. Big money.
The inaugural committee sold to television networks the exclusive rights to telecast many of the central events — not because they wanted the money, Obama aides said, but because they wanted to ensure that signature moments such as Sunday's concert at the Lincoln Memorial and Tuesday's Neighborhood Inaugural Ball could be seen across the country.
Obama banned donations to the inaugural from corporations, lobbyists, political action committees and unions, and limited individual contributions to $50,000. But the $40 million tab for the inaugural festivities had to be covered somehow.
So bleacher seats along the parade route went for $25 apiece. The inaugural committee also hawked everything from a $500 poster of Obama signed by the artist, to a $30 CD/DVD set with songs inspired by Obama's speeches and a $70 Diane Von Furstenberg tote bag.
Those e-mails about community service projects or information via text? They came with a request for a minimum donation of $5. And the deals with four TV outlets for four events will bring in $5 million.
Flouting his own rules?
The watchdog group Public Citizen complained this week that Obama was flouting his own rules to let special interests have an in. The group said its analysis of donations to the Presidential Inaugural Committee showed that nearly 80 percent flowed from just 211 individual "bundlers," a term for well-connected fundraisers who collect checks from others and deliver them in one package.
Members of Congress controlled distribution of most of the 240,000 tickets available for the swearing-in outside the Capitol on Tuesday — those are free — and the 5,000 bleacher seats along the parade route sold out in less than a minute.
The entire length of the National Mall will be open to the general public, with 10 jumbo screens displaying the swearing-in. The parade route along Pennsylvania Avenue has standing room for about 300,000 as well.
Once all the revelers leave town and the last prayer is said on Wednesday, Obama will return to the White House to tackle the urgent priorities that are stacked on Bush's desk. In many ways, though, despite Obama's insistence that there is "only one president at a time," he started functioning as president soon after his election more than two months ago.
Obama has refrained from commenting on the fiery conflict taking place in the Middle East. But he has felt free to have his say on other international events, including the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
And he has campaigned vigorously to see his top priority — a massive stimulus package for the limping economy — passed as soon as possible after his inauguration. He delivered a presidential-style speech to make the case on Friday.
Indeed, $825 billion in stimulus money is on the fast track to congressional consideration. And he already has clearance to dole out $350 billion remaining from the financial bailout package approved late last year.
Obama even issued a pre-White House veto threat, warning fellow Democrats not to deny him the bailout money he wanted.
On Tuesday, he'll actually have the power.