Washington Gears Up for a Smaller, More Subdued Obama Inaugural

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JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

Two workers adjust the U.S. flag on the Capitol as preparations continue for the second inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington, Jan. 17, 2013.

Love may be lovelier the second time around, but second inaugurations rarely outdo the first. Washington, D.C., is preparing for a much smaller to-do than President Obama’s 2009 unprecedented blowout. Almost 2 million people crowded into the capital in 2009. On Friday, D.C. authorities downgraded expectations from between 600,000 and 800,000 to between 500,000 and 700,000.

As the weekend celebrations revved up, downtown hotel rooms were still available for roughly $200. Managers priced some suites at a third of what visitors paid in 2009. Outrageously expensive spaces, like the $50,000 spread at the W Hotel, were left unbooked. “Obviously, the demand is softer,” says Solomon Keene, President of D.C.’s major hotel association. Compared to the days before Obama’s first inauguration—when hotel bookings were “historic”—Keene says the major D.C. lodging establishments are experiencing a “significant drop off.”

Four years ago, the D.C. metro authority deputized 200 out-of-town officers to help with the crowds. “We’re seeing an unprecedented level of interest and cooperation from law enforcement agencies across the country,” officials announced in a press release about the “historic occasion.” This time, their notice relayed without fanfare that the number will be 150. Spokesman Dan Stessel says that while the authority is prepared for a repeat of the record-breaking 1.1 million rides on the city’s buses and metros, officials are anticipating as little as half. Relatively speaking, Stessel says, preparations for 2013 were much like dusting off a playbook.

The official events are more subdued, too. Some 13,000 civilians and members of the military marched down Pennsylvania Ave. in 2009: on Monday, 10,000 will take part in the parade. Last time, 9,300 National Guard troops arrived to provide support during the day: this time, 6,000 have. And while Obama’s first inauguration was preceded by days of galas and high-profile concerts, Bruce Springsteen’s name is noticeably absent from the 2013 programs.

Of course, the gap between 2009 and 2013 feels big because enthusiasm levels—and all the logistics and pomp and dollar bills that go with them—were off the charts when the country swore in its first African-American president. Second inaugurals are inevitably less thrilling, too. “A first inaugural pretty much always feels like an inflection point in history. There’s change in leadership at the White House even if there isn’t change in party,” says former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol. “That invests  the first inaugural with a kind of historical weight that it is harder to feel or to create the second time around. This is continuity rather than change.”

As Stessel points out, no one really knows how many people will show up. Compared to the crowds that descended for the second oaths of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Monday’s event is still estimated to be much larger. Given that the weather is supposed to be less bone-freezing—in the 40s instead of the 20s—more on-the-fencers may brave the streets, too. That is to say: in the grand scheme of inaugural celebrations, this might not be one for the history books, but it will still be one to remember.