WASHINGTON — It is one of those occasions that is quintessential Washington: the inauguration of a president, a multiple-day festival of patriotism, politics, optimism and self-congratulation.
All of that will be on display on Jan. 21, when President Barack Obama is publicly sworn in for his second four-year term. But this inauguration will be far less grand than Obama’s first in 2009, when a record 1.8 million visitors flooded the city to see the nation’s first black president take office.
This time the celebration is likely to attract no more than 800,000 or so guests, city officials estimate. As a result, some luxury hotel rooms and coveted tables at high-end restaurants are still available, less than a month before the inauguration.
The swanky Mandarin Oriental Hotel, with its sweeping views of the National Mall, initially required inauguration guests to make reservations for four nights. Now it has relaxed that requirement to three nights to try to fill its rooms.
But the “inauguration markup” still applies: The Mandarin’s least expensive room, normally available for $295 a night, starts at $1,195 a night during the long inauguration weekend.
Even so, the demand for hotel and restaurant reservations for this inauguration pales compared with the rush that followed Obama’s first election.
Back then, the scramble for accommodation was so desperate that homeowners and renters in Washington and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs leased their homes for the inauguration, creating a vast secondary market in housing that week.
Hundreds of those homeowners — including former Tennessee senator and actor and Fred Thompson, who offered to rent out his condominium for five days for $30,000 — sought to profit from the festivities and leave town to avoid the crowds.
Today the website Craigslist shows only a few dozen ads offering housing for the inauguration.
“They swarmed to the market last time,” said real estate agent Hill Slowinski, who deals in luxury properties. “We are not seeing the same level of interest” this year.
The story is similar at the Palm restaurant, which offers a $54 rib-eye steak and is a favorite of Democratic power brokers. Some tables are still free for Sunday night, Jan. 20, the evening before the ceremony.
Looking over the reservations for that night, Tommy Jacomo, who has run the restaurant for four decades, said: “It’s mediocre. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
Jacomo said that for many of Obama’s supporters, the 2009 inaugural celebration was a history-making one that can’t be topped.
“The second time, it’s always not that big,” he said.
That has been the case in recent second-term inaugurations, particularly Republican Ronald Reagan’s in 1985. Thanks to brutally cold weather, that became a mostly-indoor affair in which Reagan took the oath of office and delivered his inaugural address in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda rather than outside the Capitol.
For Obama’s second inauguration, the thrill might be lessened further by the fact that he will take the official oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts in a closed ceremony the day before the public festivities — on Jan. 20, as required by law.
Because that day falls on a Sunday, the public events — the swearing-in outside the Capitol, Obama’s inaugural address, the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House, and the inaugural balls — will be held a day later.
Hans Bruland, the general manager of the Hay-Adams Hotel who is working his fifth inauguration, said the lack of excitement for a president’s second time around should be expected.
He said the ongoing negotiations between the White House and Congress over looming tax increases and budget cuts — and the threat of economic calamity if some sort of deal isn’t reached — are clouding the mood in Washington and could be affecting the plans of some potential celebrants.
Obama’s first inauguration took place as a worldwide financial crisis was unfolding, but his history-making ascent to the White House seemed to trump such concerns, at least for a few days.
“Oftentimes, we don’t remember what normal feels like,” Bruland said. “People tend to panic a little.”
Fewer inaugural balls
Such economic jitters are one reason Obama’s second inauguration will feature just two official balls, rather than the 10 that were held in 2009.
Both will be at the Washington Convention Center on Jan. 21. One ball will be for the public and guests, the other primarily for military families and veterans.
There will be a few unofficial balls held by various groups, but this will be the fewest number of official inaugural balls by any president since Dwight Eisenhower’s first term in 1953 — a reflection of Obama’s effort to keep the celebration low-key at a time when many Americans are struggling financially.
For all that relative austerity, there will be plenty of opportunities for big-spending Obama supporters to wrap themselves in luxury.
For $60,000, guests can stay four nights in the Mandarin Oriental’s presidential suite, with 24-hour butler service and a private dining room.
A champagne cork’s flight from the White House, the Hay-Adams is renting its largest suite for $7,900 a night. Before the 2009 inauguration, Obama and his family occupied an entire wing of the hotel before he was able to move into his new digs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
One early indication that there will be fewer visitors filling such expensive beds — and contributing to the festivities — was the president’s decision to widen the search for funds for his second inauguration.
In 2009, Team Obama raised a record $53 million for his inauguration, without donations from corporations, lobbyists, and political action committees as part of a “commitment to change business as usual in Washington.”
This time, Obama supporters have welcomed donations from such groups. A spokesperson for the presidential inauguration committee, which manages the effort, declined to comment on the pace of fundraising so far.
In 2009, the maximum donation for individuals accepted by the committee was $50,000. This year, Obama’s fundraising committee is encouraging gifts of $250,000 from individuals. That kind of generosity will earn givers access to VIP receptions, reserved seats for the inaugural parade and other benefits.
The fire still burns
There is one group that appears to be fired up and ready to go to Washington: his former campaign workers.
One volunteer, Catherine Lyons, a phone bank coordinator in Emeryville, California, said she was so excited that she bought plane tickets for Washington before Obama’s re-election was assured.
On the morning of Nov. 6, Election Day, Lyons went online and bought a seat for a cross-country flight.
“It was a little risky,” Lyons, 25, said. “Bravery or a little stupidity, however you want to see it.”
Also heading to Washington will be Shomari Figures, 27, a lawyer who was a field organizer for Obama’s campaign in Akron, Ohio.
“The excitement,” Figures said, “is still there.”