Obama’s big party

The new president’s inauguration will be of historic proportions

Obama’s big party

Even the drinking promises to be historic. Bars and restaurants in normally buttoned-down Washington have won special dispensation to stay open round-the-clock from Jan. 17 through Jan. 20, when president-elect Barack Obama takes the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States. For those four days this heavily Democratic city will serve alcohol until 4 a.m. to celebrate his swearing-in—and perhaps to toast the departure of his predecessor, a Republican teetotaller who was in bed every night by nine.

Every four years the American capital unfurls a traditional day of pageantry to mark the democratic transition of power to the next administration. Recession or not, this inauguration feels more like a coronation. Officials are expecting record crowds: estimates range from one to four million revellers converging on the National Mall for the historic swearing-in of the first black president in this majority African-American city—the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations, in this bicentennial year of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Intentionally following in the tracks of the Great Emancipator, Obama plans to arrive in town via an old-fashioned whistle-stop train tour that begins in the revolutionary capital of Philadelphia, picks up his vice-president, Joe Biden, en route in Delaware, and stops in Baltimore before arriving in the capital. (The grand entrance is being orchestrated despite the fact that the Obama family has already holed up this month in a hotel near the White House so his daughters could begin classes at their new private school.)

Obama’s Inauguration Day has morphed into Inauguration Week, crammed with concerts, parties and galas. Hotels for miles around Washington have long been booked, and private apartments are renting for thousands of dollars. Some 10,000 charter buses are expected to clog city streets. Federal buildings and many private businesses will be closed. The subway system will be working overtime; it has already begun printing Obama’s portrait on its fare cards.

Obama will kick things off on Sunday, Jan. 18, with a public celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, where Rev. King gave his “I have a dream” speech in 1963. The following day, Obama and Biden will launch a volunteerism website and do their own good works around town. On Jan. 20, after the official ceremony on the steps of the Capitol building, the inaugural parade will roll down to the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue, which has been repaved for the occasion. (Canadian Ambassador Michael Wilson will have one of the best parade views in town from his office window.) Five thousand porta-potties are on order for parade-watchers, but the biggest inauguration security effort in history (price tag: US$28 million) has banned backpacks, strollers and even umbrellas on the Mall. Four thousand out-of-town police are arriving to double the size of the local force. The FBI will be supplying more agents than at past inaugurations, and for the first time, the military is sending help in the form of troops.

More than 10 inaugural balls are planned, including 10 official galas that Obama will attend. Under George W. Bush, the hottest ticket in town was the black-tie-and-boots ball put on by the Texas State Society, where partiers two-stepped in stetsons and tuxedos. This time Oprah Winfrey herself is renting out the Opera House in the stately Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to tape her own “inauguration celebration.” Other soirees range from a “Hip Hop Ball” featuring Russell Simmons and LL Cool J to Al Gore’s “Green Ball” featuring organic food and LED lighting. Various U.S. states and groups are throwing their own parties, ranging from a star-studded MTV gala to a charity ball by the Baltimore Washington Black McDonald’s Operators Association. There is even a website (www.dressregistry.com) that allows ladies to register photographs and details of their ball gowns to avoid the horror of showing up in someone else’s couture.

The planning hasn’t been without tension. Obama’s choice of an evangelical Christian mega-church leader, Rev. Rick Warren, to give the invocation angered many supporters because Warren has spoken out against homosexuality and gay marriage. Then there is the pressure on Obama’s 27-year-old speechwriter, Jon Favreau, to pen an inaugural address worthy of the occasion. During the campaign, the worsening economy gradually pulled the soaring rhetoric of Obama’s early speeches down to earthly concerns. Now, with conditions only getting worse, many Americans will look again to the president-elect to lift them up once more. And they hope that this time he can do so with more than just words.