WASHINGTON, Jan 14 – The crowd will be smaller, the temperature hopefully warmer and security as tight as ever when Barack Obama is sworn in for a second term in the White House on the steps of the Capitol in a week’s time.
Presidential inaugurations are a big deal in Washington, never more so than four years ago when a record 1.8 million Americans personally came out to witness Obama taking office as the first black president of the United States.
This time around, next Monday, the numbers will be smaller, as they usually are for a second inauguration.
Indeed, the no-traffic zone around the Capitol, the National Mall and the White House is smaller this time around, although security will remain intense with police, soldiers and Secret Service agents thick on the ground.
Backpacks are banned at the inauguration proper and the parade route to the White House. So too are alcohol, signs, portable chairs and umbrellas.
“In terms of visitation, we are anticipating between 500,000 to 800,000 visitors, according to transportation authorities,” Alicia Malone of the Destination DC tourism authority told AFP.
Major hotels still have rooms available, even the historic Willard — two blocks from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue with a commanding view of the inaugural parade route.
It has been offering suites based in design on the Oval Office for $5,700 per night for a four night minimum — or for those of more modest means, deluxe rooms for $1,149 a night.
“We are getting close to selling out,” said Willard spokeswoman Barbara Bahny.
Not to be outdone, the less strategically located Ritz-Carlton has pitched an Access Washington package for two at a cool $100,000, including first-class airfare from anywhere and a chauffeured ride from the airport.
“I’m not sure it’s going to be as frenzied as 2008,” said college professor Tuere Anne Marshall, 61, a native Washingtonian who remembers being “carted off in blankets” to attend John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.
“But there are going to be a lot of people from out of town coming in, and I’m so excited — it’s a great kick-off for the new administration,” she told AFP at Friday’s opening of the Official Inaugural Store.
The downtown boutique, and its online counterpart, offer a range of Obama memorabilia from lapel buttons and T-shirts to engraved cocktail glasses, golf balls and athletic tube socks.
Obama’s first inauguration was particularly memorable for how cold it was — it was 28 degrees Fahrenheit (minus two Celsius) with a brisk northerly wind when he took the oath of office.
Washington Post weather blogger Jason Samenow, using long-range forecasting models, expects temperatures next Monday to be closer to normal, with highs in the lower 40s Fahrenheit (just above five Celsius).
The private weather service AccuWeather is more optimistic, forecasting a high of 54 Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius) and sunshine.
By another yardstick — official balls attended by the president and first lady — this inauguration will have fewer than the norm.
There will be just two — one for members of the armed forces, the other for more than 35,000 members of the public, both at the utilitarian rather than glamorous Washington convention center.
The latter ball sold out before the tickets were supposed to go on sale, after Ticketmaster triggered an online frenzy by prematurely sending out an email with the link to buy the highly coveted stubs.
But there is no shortage of unofficial balls over the long weekend that happens to incorporate Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday that always falls of the third Monday of January.
Revellers can take their pick from the Texan-themed Black Tie and Boots ball, a Rhythm and Blues Reloaded ball, a Global Peace ball and an Inaugural Ball for the Rest of Us disco night, among dozens of others.
There’s even a gala organized by African-Americans who run local McDonald’s franchises — black tie optional, but no word if Big Macs will be served — and a risquee “Vaudeball! with Tilted Torch” burlesque ball.
Cameron French, deputy press secretary of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, said that like other second-term inaugurations, the turnout is expected to be smaller and that is being factored into the planning.
“But by no means it is any less historic than it was four years ago,” he told AFP. “It’s still a historic moment and we’re still expecting thousands of people to make their way to Washington to celebrate.