Inauguration Day 2009: An electric atmosphere

Euphoria and excitement grip Washington as Barack Obama prepares to take the Oath of Office.

“I just want to be part of it. I know it’s going to be crazy, and I don’t know what I’m going to actually see of him — maybe just an ear, or an elbow. But I want to be there.”

The speaker, a young Health Department worker from New York City named Tefanwe, is in line to board one of three buses set to depart at 1 p.m. for Washington D.C. from New York on Sunday, January 18. Normally, she’d be taking the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day off. But today, she’s on her way to D.C. She’s one of 3 to 4 million visitors expected to take part in what promises to be America’s biggest party of a generation — the Inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States.

Coordinating the social whirl of Inaugural events taking place Sunday, Monday and Tuesday is a logistical exercise worthy of a NASA shuttle launch. One longtime Democrat who is part of the planning effort walked CB through the list of receptions, balls, and other parties he was expected to attend that night. “Let’s see, there’s a reception — a group called Cleantech for Obama — at 6:30 p.m. at Johnny Half-Shell on the Hill. Then there’s the California ball and the Latino ball — J.Lo’s expected to do some fundraising there. Every state that came out for Obama is holding a ball. There’s even a Texas cowboy-boots-and-tux ball in Maryland,” he says. “It should be a fun time.”

As Tefanwe boarded her bus on her inauguration pilgrimage, the President-elect had just completed a pilgrimage of his own. Together with the Bidens, Obama and his family spent January 17 taking a slow train from Philadelphia through Baltimore, eventually arriving in D.C. that evening. Before leaving Philadelphia, Obama paused at the train station to make a speech in which he reminded his audience of the difficulties ahead.

“Only a handful of times in our history has a generation been confronted with challenges so vast,” Obama said. “… Yet while our problems may be new, what is required to overcome them is not. What is required is the same perseverance and idealism that our founders displayed. What is required is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives — from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry — an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels.”

Obama reminded his audience of his belief that the future is a matter of choice, and exhorted them to work together to help renew the country’s promise. “And maybe, just maybe,” he concluded, “we might perfect our union in the process.”

Stirring words for a nation beleaguered by a year-long recession, the fatigue of two wars and eight years of partisan bickering. It’s no wonder Americans are responding to him as they have to no other president. Obama-mania throughout the country is at fever pitch. Numbers recorded by the CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released Dec. 24 put at a record 82% approval ratings for Obama’s handling of the transition. That’s 15 percentage points higher than Bill Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s approval ratings just prior to their Inaugurations.

As the bus pulled away, the devoted excitedly exchanged stories about how they’d gotten there. One young man sporting a baseball cap that read “Yes We Did” had come all the way from Minnesota; another woman had made the journey from Iowa. My seat-mate, Ryan Hughley, a politics major at Smith College, had been up since 4 a.m., wending her way by bus from Northampton, Mass., via New York to D.C. “I reckon everyone on this bus is going to D.C. for the same reason,” she says. All echoed the views of the woman from New York: they wanted to be part of history in the making.

Amongst the converted, the atmosphere is electric. Those going to the Inauguration received hearty congratulations from those who couldn’t make it. Hotel rooms in the Capitol could not be had for love or money, and sofa space, floor space, even hallway space, was being hawked at $100 a night on sites ranging from Craigslist to a website set up especially for the event: By Sunday, the city was already jammed, courtesy of a special concert at the Lincoln Memorial with Bruce Springsteen headlining and U2 as impromptu MC. (According to attendee Dan Walsh, who, together with his wife Annie, had flown in from Minnesota especially for the Inauguration, it took at least an hour to get into the concert). The roads into D.C. were scheduled to close by 12 noon on Monday.

Amidst the hype, some are concerned the expectations heaped on the slender shoulders of the Senator from Illinois are more than any mere human can hope to meet — particularly in the current economic environment. In recent public appearances, Obama himself has been at pains to manage them. During a speech outlining his stimulus package for the economy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., on January 8, Obama called for “dramatic action as soon as possible” to deal with a “crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetime” — a crisis, he added, that would take time — “perhaps many years” — to resolve.

The plan he laid out that day would, he said, save or create millions of jobs. It would do so through a combination of investing in alternative energy; weatherizing 75% of federal buildings and 2 million American homes; computerizing America’s medical records; updating thousands of schools, community colleges, and public universities; expanding broadband; and investing in science, research, and technology.

As if to underscore the urgency, in the week before Inauguration Obama abandoned his stance that there is only “one president at a time.” Instead, he publicly threw his support behind a new stimulus bill in Congress. Championed by Democrats, it aims to unlock US$825 billion in funds.

Maya MacGuineas is President of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a D.C.-based budget watchdog. Though concerned about the level of spending involved, she applauded Obama’s intervention. “To all intents and purposes, he’s the president, and he’s got to show he’s focused on the economy,” she said over the phone from her office.

However, MacGuineas is skeptical of what such a vast amount of public money is actually going to be able to accomplish. “There is a risk that with such extreme amounts of money in play, the money will not get spent well,” she explained. “There has been much talk about these funds being spent in a targeted, careful and transparent manner — but it is not humanly possible to manage a stimulus this large and not have some waste, or have it hit less than perfect targets.”

That said, says MacGuineas, the Obama team and the president-elect himself have “been saying all the right things.” She is particularly impressed with Obama’s recent comments proposing a Fiscal Responsibility Summit. It will form part of stage two of Obama’s stimulus plan, in which the Administration and Congress will work to tackle longer-term budget challenges, such as reforming social security.

“It’s an immense task,” says MacGuineas. “[The Obama team] certainly seem to be moving in the right direction — but frankly, we’re in uncharted waters. Nobody knows what is going to work at this point.”

What’s clear is that the U.S. economy is going to need stage two of Obama’s economic recovery plan — the effort to reform long-term spending — just as badly as it needs stage one. The Congressional Budget Office, a budget watchdog, on January 8 released a report that projected America’s deficit to swell to US$1.2 trillion in 2009. To date, the country’s overseas creditors — key among them the People’s Bank of China — have been willing to continue to invest in U.S. government debt, shoring up America’s effort to spend its way out of its problems. Whether such overseas creditors will continue to invest in U.S. government debt on that scale, particularly as their own economies begin to feel the impact of the global recession, is unclear.

The Obama Administration can, however, count on the fervent support of at least one key constituency — a younger generation of Americans engaged by their society as never before. “The fact that [Obama] got elected — well, in my mind, it indicates anything is possible,” says Smith major Ryan Hughley. “Once I get my politics degree, I’d like to work as a paralegal for a year or so, and then go to law school.” Her ultimate goal? “To help run the country. I want to help make this country great again.”

Such lofty words may ring hollow to a cynic’s ears. But with daily layoff announcements and large corporations from Circuit City to Nortel either declaring bankruptcy or on the brink of it, the need to ameliorate the economic crisis grows more dire by the day. Obama’s team is banking that the combination of billions of dollars in stimulus spending, real fiscal reform, a crack economic team and an energized populace, will be enough to get America back to work. With Canada’s fortunes tied as tightly as ever to those of the United States, we can only hope they’re right.