Finding the Right Balance

Yvette Williams, a mortgage broker from Las Vegas, said her family's finances are pinched by the free fall in housing prices. Yet nothing will stop her from coming to Washington next month with her husband and two teenage daughters.

"We want to celebrate," she says. "We have earned it."

Democratic strategist Paul Begala says a big, bold event is just what the country needs — at least for one day.

"This country needs an exuberant celebration of change" from the Bush administration, Begala says.

The Carter Example

Other incoming presidents have toned down their inaugural events during difficult times.

Jimmy Carter, elected in the post-Watergate era, broke with tradition and braved the wind and freezing temperatures to walk the one and a half miles from the swearing-in ceremony on the Capitol steps down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.

At inaugural balls that night in 1977, fancy food was nixed in favor of pretzels and peanuts.

"He wanted to show people that he wasn't an aristocrat and that this wasn't a coronation," says Marvin Kranz, a retired American history specialist at the Library of Congress. "He wanted people to know he was a plain old peanut farmer from Georgia."

President Bush's second inauguration in 2005 was the first after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With U.S. troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, "we tried to respect the fact, at every single one of our events, that we were a country at war," says Jeanne Phillips, a Dallas oil company executive who oversaw both Bush inaugurations. The schedule included a "Commander-in-Chief Ball" with free tickets distributed to 2,000 members of the armed services and their relatives.

History shows that presidential transitions amid crisis "are actually opportunities for leaders who understand them as such, and not merely a transfer of power," says Richard Norton Smith, who has been the director of five presidential libraries.

That was the case when Franklin Roosevelt was sworn into office March 4, 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression and a panicked run on banks.

Roosevelt was a largely unknown leader, elected amid public dismay over his predecessor Herbert Hoover's handling of the nation's economic troubles, Smith says.

Roosevelt's inaugural address telling Americans that the "only thing we have to fear is fear itself," followed by a burst of legislative activity to pass work-relief programs and insure bank deposits, "converted the psychology of a battered country almost overnight," Smith says.

Former White House chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein says Obama should harken back to the first inauguration of Duberstein's old boss, Ronald Reagan, for a modern-day example of setting the right tone.

"In some ways, it's similar to 1980 when the country was going through economic malaise and was in a recession," he says. "America had lost pride in itself and America didn't have the same respect around the world."

After Reagan was sworn in Jan. 20, 1981, he delivered a speech that was "uplifting and confidence-building," Duberstein recalls.

"It was saying to the world, 'There's a new day in America and things are going to get better.' "

High Expectations for Obama

There's no shortage of advice for the Obama:

• Schmuhl says Obama knows "the significance of words" and he should make sure his inaugural address "overshadows everything else going on."

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