The Orange County Register Jan. 15, 2009
Enthusiastic Barack Obama supporters vowed to be in Washington on January 20 for his inauguration, to “be part of history.”
Early media reports predicted unprecedented crowds - the D.C. mayor’s office foresaw five million.
A travel poster touting one of the many packages offered to see Barack Obama inaugurated Tuesday as the 44th President of the United States. Initial expectations of up to 5 million visitors have been scaled back because potential visitors’ concerns about the economy, crowds and the cold
But the turnout now looks likely to be less than two million, with enthusiasms dampened by the expense and difficulty of traveling, the crowds, the economic downturn, the cold weather and the scarcity of swearing-in ceremony tickets.
Elated by the election, New Yorker Dacia Morris, 36, was prepared in mid-November to go, perhaps sleeping on a friend’s couch.
“This is historic and I’m ready to do just about anything to be in D.C. when Obama is sworn in,” she said then.
She’s since reconsidered.
“Thinking about getting to the inauguration has taken a backseat now to other things,” she says now. “The planning and the frustration that comes with not being able to figure out the logistics have left me resigned to staying at home.”
Expectations of huge crowds and difficulties in finding transportation and lodging have deterred many potential attendees, said Curtis Gans, director of Washington-based American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate.
“Emotional considerations are running into logistical and practical considerations,” he said.
Despite early reports of area hotels being sold out, as of Jan. 7 there were still 627 hotel rooms available in the city, and over 12,000 within a 400-mile radius, according to the official tourism organization, Destination, D.C.
Tour organizers across the country have discovered that inauguration enthusiasm has faded. GotoBus.com, an online bus tour company with one, two and eight-day inaugural packages from Boston to Washington, still has tickets for sale on every trip.
Obama supporters in Florida had planned a “Yes We Can 2009 Cruise,” with over 300 people to sail from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to Baltimore, Md. But the cruise was cancelled, due to a lack of demand. Now the group will just send two buses, said Obama campaign volunteer Karen Phillips.
“The excitement seems to have died,” said Neal Kellman, owner of SolidPlanIt, a tour and events company in Brooklyn, N.Y. His 56-person bus was only half full by Jan. 13, though the package had been discounted to $175 from $233. “This was supposed to be a big deal. Everyone said they were going to go�But now little small issues—’It’s cold. There will be a crowd.’—seem to be making people decide against it.”
Clinical psychologist Bonnie Jacobson says people are drawn to events like inaugurations to be part of a group, and to have their happiness and excitement reinforced by others. But a group mentality can also sap excitement. Now recession is pressing Americans to cut back on spending, and to avoid a potentially expensive trip.
“When fears get triggered, it can be really inhibiting,” said Jacobson.
Even though NAACP Staten Island chapter president Edward Josey, 68, is facing a deficit of demand for his inaugural trip—with just 20 people slated to be on board his 56-person bus—he’s still going.
“This is the first black president of the United States. I could very well watch it on TV,” said Josey. “But I’ll have the bragging rights that I was there. I’ve waited all my life for this, and I may never see it again.”
A number of people backed out of Josey’s trip over the last week. “They said the weather would be bad and they would have a better view on television,” said Josey. The forecasting service AccuWeather predicts Washington temperatures in the mid-30s that day.
The area around the Capitol will be restricted to 240,000 ticket-holders, and the bleacher areas along the parade route to 5,000. Those without tickets can watch the ceremony on jumbotron screens set up on the National Mall, or can line up along Pennsylvania Avenue to see the processional parade to the White House.
Many who changed their minds about attending cited the failure get tickets from their congressional representatives as a major factor.
Wayde Grinstead, a New York City public school teacher, had planned to take his high school civics class, but encountered resistance from the school administration.
“The principal of our school doesn’t want us going down to be on the fringes,” said Grinstead, who attempted to get swearing-in ceremony tickets or a guaranteed watching spot. Unsuccessful, he’ll be tuning into CNN with his class instead.
This seems to be a theme among would-be attendees. If they had front-row seats, they’d want to go. But fighting the imagined crowds, craning to catch a glimpse of the presidential motorcade going by, is less compelling. “Being part of history” seems less appealing than being warm and comfortable, and watching the action on TV.