President Obama gives his inauguration address after being sworn in on January 20, 2009. (Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images)
On the day of President Obama’s inauguration four years ago, retired naval officer John Erickson was awakened at 5:30 a.m. by the sound of crowds walking by his Capitol Hill townhouse. The people thronging past Erickson’s windows —filling the sidewalks and spilling into the street — were among the 1.8 million people who watched the nation’s first African-American president take the oath of office, the biggest crowd in the history of the ceremony.
“New Jersey Avenue looked like a massive parade,” Erickson says.
For the second go-round, no one expects quite so many folks.
When Obama again takes the oath of office on Jan. 21, tourism officials expect the crowd on the National Mall in Washington to be closer to 800,000 than the unprecedented number from four years ago.
“All of the forecasts and the trends say it will be very typical of a second inauguration,” says Barry Biggar, president of Visit Fairfax, the tourism agency for Fairfax County, Va., which lies across the Potomac River from Washington.
It’s usual for fewer spectators to watch a second swearing-in, even if the first one doesn’t benefit from being an historic first. For President George W. Bush’s first inauguration in 2001, the Washington-area Metro subway system had nearly 602,000 riders; for his second in 2005, the number of riders fell to just under 584,000. In 1993, there were 811,300 riders for President Clinton’s first swearing-in, but for the reprise in 1997, there were 454,900, according to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
Obama’s 2009 inauguration was the busiest day in the history of the city’s transit system, with 1.54 million bus and subway trips.
“It’s still going to be an incredibly festive fun four days. It’s just not going to be this wild frenzy that it was four years ago,” says Colleen Evans, spokeswoman for the two Ritz-Carlton hotels in the city.
“The first inauguration was the first African-American president,” says political scientist Mark Cornfield of George Washington University. “That brought people from all over the nation and all over the world. I can’t imagine that happening again.”
With fewer people likely heading to the National Mall, Erickson might get to sleep in a little later for this inauguration. However, he’s hoping not to be home at all: He has put his house on Craigslist to rent for the weekend, at a cost of $2,000 per night.
Washington hotels go all-out for inaugurations: The Ritz-Carlton, for instance, offers a $100,000 four-day package that includes behind-the-scenes tours of Washington, a parade-viewing party and new outfits for inaugural events from Saks Fifth Avenue. Hotel marketing executives and regional tourism officials have been holding planning meetings since summer.
“This is Washington, D.C.’s Super Bowl and Oscars and Grammys all rolled into one,” says Mark Indre, spokesman for the J.W. Marriott hotel.
Although those hotels located near the Capitol and the parade route expect to sell out — in 2009, the occupancy rate for the city’s 29,000 hotel rooms was 98 percent for Inauguration Day — rooms aren’t being booked as quickly this year.
“This time at the last inauguration, we were full. There really wasn’t a room to be found anywhere in the city,” said Adam Knight, manager of the Fairmont Hotel near the city’s Georgetown neighborhood.
“We’re pacing a little slower than last time but we’re right where we thought we would be.” The hotel — which also offers a $100,000 inaugural package that includes two gold Rolex watches and a dog walker for the weekend — is currently half-booked for inauguration weekend. Rates start at $1,000 a night and a four-night minimum stay is required.
The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which is in charge of the swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol, recently announced the inauguration theme: “Faith in America’s Future.”
The Presidential Inaugural Committee, which is in charge of the official inaugural balls, the parade and everything but the swearing-in ceremony opened for business this week. Other inaugural balls thrown by state societies, like the Black Tie & Boots Ball thrown by the Texas State Society, are already selling tickets online.
“We certainly had concerns about it being the second time around,” said Bart Hudson, president of the Florida House Foundation, which will throw its second state ball on Jan. 19. In 2009, the ball drew 850 people who paid as much as $500 a ticket for dinner and dancing, and Hudson expects to sell the same number of tickets this year.
“The people that I’ve talked with that came before are coming again,” he says. At inaugural balls, “folks can put the partisanship aside to celebrate. We’ll have new members of Congress that will be celebrating. I don’t want to call it an opportunity for a good party, but it is.”
Martha T. Moore reports for USA Today.