IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The politics of crowd size

Many of President Obama's detractors seemed pleased yesterday morning when reports pointed to diminished turnout for his second inaugural. After historic crowds four years ago, most estimates said the 2013 audience would be less than half as big, and Obama's critics took saw that as meaningful evidence of ... something.

But as Inauguration Day wrapped up, the right's talking point started to look far less compelling.

At least one million people attended the president's swearing-in on Monday, an inaugural official said.

That far surpassed projections of between half a million and 700,000 attendees provided by inaugural planners before the event. But despite the healthy turnout, the crowd size was far below the president's first inauguration, where an estimated 1.8 million flooded the National Mall.

In a case like this, context is everything. Looking back through recent history, Bill Clinton's first inaugural drew about 800,000 people in 1993, which was considered an enormous crowd. In contrast, about 300,000 came to see George W. Bush's first inaugural, and 400,000 saw his second.

It's true that Obama's crowd yesterday wasn't nearly as big as the audience from 2009, but the 1 million people who showed up was significantly more than Bush's two inaugural crowds combined -- a detail some on the right chose to overlook when making a fuss yesterday morning.

It's also true that the 2013 inaugural crowd came up short of the 1.2 million people who attended Lyndon Johnson's inauguration in 1965, but this only helps underscore the larger point: Barack Obama's 2013 inauguration was among the biggest events ever held on the National Mall.

When comparing Obama's 2009 crowd vs. Obama's 2013 crowd, yesterday may seem less impressive. But when comparing Obama's 2013 crowd to history, it was extraordinary.