Finding the Right Balance

Airlines are adding flights. Church groups are chartering buses. Beyoncé wants to perform, and Oprah's got her ball gown picked out.

The nation's capital will be bursting with enthusiasm and the world will be watching with high expectations Jan. 20 as the nation's first African-American president is sworn into office on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, a monument to democracy that slaves helped to build.

But as Barack Obama's inaugural planners begin their work, they face an extraordinary challenge: How should they stage a celebration that honors this moment in American history at a time when the country is gripped by the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression?

"That's the real tightrope walk -- to convey the historic nature without the histrionics of ostentation," says Notre Dame professor Robert Schmuhl, author of Statecraft and Stagecraft: American Political Life in the Age of Personality. "The most expensive presidential campaign may have won Barack Obama the White House, but the inauguration needs to convey a different message and image."

The day is beginning to take shape.

Giant viewing screens will be set up along the National Mall for those who can't get up close, and a splashy celebrity ball will feature director Spike Lee, actress Susan Sarandon and musician Elvis Costello. In a nod to tough times, the inaugural committee is not accepting donations of more than $50,000 -- a big drop from the $250,000 set by President Bush four years ago.

Private fundraising pays for most activities, such as the inaugural balls. Taxpayers foot the bill for security and the actual ceremony.

Presidential Inaugural Committee spokesman Josh Earnest says planners are putting together events that "acknowledge the severity" of the economic crisis and are focused on the notion that "this isn't just a celebration of an election but also a celebration of our democracy."

The inauguration "serves as a reminder that in these challenging times, our citizens want the kind of leadership that's going to galvanize the country," he says.

Washington's mayor, Adrian Fenty, predicts that up to 5 million people could flood the city, surpassing the record 1.2 million who lined the streets of the capital in 1965 to see Lyndon Johnson take the oath of office -- the first public swearing-in after John Kennedy's assassination.

More than 1,300 groups have applied to march in Obama's Inaugural Parade, compared with slightly more than 400 applications for President Bush's second inauguration in 2005.

Demand for the 240,000 free public tickets to Obama's swearing-in is so intense that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., head of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, asked online auction houses to stop selling them to prevent profiteering.

So far, eBay and its other Internet arms including StubHub have barred such sales on their sites.

Anxiety over the economy has stalled some planning of inaugural parties and other activities.

"People are waiting to see what happens with the economy and what tone the Obamas want to set," says veteran Washington insider John Graham, president and CEO of the American Society of Association Executives.

"People are reluctant to do things that are seen as over the top."

Some Obama supporters acknowledge that the tough economy calls for restraint but say little can contain their jubilation.

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