Will Obama Scale Back Pricey Inaugural Balls?

Lavish galas, oozing glitz and glam, typically ring in a new administration on Inauguration Day. But will Washington's elite soon dance its worries away to the tune of millions of dollars as the country faces its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression?

Striking the right balance for inaugural balls could be a challenge, given the nation's financial crisis.

From holiday bonuses for CEOs to an extravagant White House dinner served last week to world leaders, excess is being frowned upon at every turn. Already, President-elect Barack Obama's team has taken a cue, opting to cancel planned fireworks on election night in Chicago's Grant Park.

So, is there a chance Obama's team will tone down the inaugural festivities, as well?

"I think that they do need to be cognizant that it is a difficult economy," Steve Ellis, vice president of the budget watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, told ABCNews.com. "And though there's an interest to celebrate, you don't want to appear that it's just party time, rather than pulling up your sleeves and it's work time."

Deciding to scale back inaugural balls would be unusual, but not unprecedented.

"Not since the Great Depression has the economy made a big difference in terms of inaugural balls," American University history professor Allan Lichtman told ABCNews.com.

The Price to Party

President-elect Barack Obama's team has not yet outlined its plans for official inaugural balls, organized by a yet-to-be-announced Presidential Inaugural Committee. But already, more than a dozen unofficial galas hosted by various state societies and other groups guarantee winter in Washington will be filled with black-tie affairs.

To be sure, the price of attending those galas has soared since the first official ball in the nation's capital. To score a ticket to the first bash in 1809, hosted by the woman Lichtman called "Washington's greatest hostess, Dolly Madison," 400 attendees paid $4 each, according to historical information compiled by the Senate.

Today, the asking price for unofficial galas ranges from $100 for a ticket to the New York State Society's pre-inaugural parade brunch to $1,000 for a celebration at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Tickets to the Illinois State Society Inaugural Gala, thrown by Obama's home state, are $300 to $500.

But the tab for an entire affair -- from paying for security for the crowds to throwing official balls -- can skyrocket. According to Craig Holman, campaign finance lobbyist for Public Citizen, the total bill for the 2005 inauguration of President Bush was $42.8 million.

Holman said D.C. will likely ask for $16-$18 million to cover inaugural festivities, mostly for security. But he told ABCNews.com he's hopeful Obama will go a different route than Bush did and not accept money from corporations and lobbyists to further fund balls and other celebrations.

"If he were to live by the principles of his campaign, he would have to clearly scale back the festivities and not put on something like George Bush did in 2005," Holman said.

"Spending $42.8 million just to throw a party for yourself just to become president, to me, that brings back memories of royal England and should have nothing to do, really, with the United States," Holman said.

Opting for More Frugal Festivities

If Obama's inauguration committee takes a less extravagant approach, it wouldn't be the first time.

Inaugural history, compiled by the Senate, reveals that, in 1913, incoming president Woodrow Wilson squashed the idea of an expensive celebration.

"Not every president had a ball," Lichtman said. "Woodrow Wilson, who was very austere, didn't want to have an inaugural ball."

President-elect Warren G. Harding concurred in 1921, instead attending a private party at home. Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt followed suit, opting for charity balls instead of over-the-top affairs.

Inaugural balls regained momentum starting with President Harry Truman in 1949. With the exception of President Jimmy Carter, who called for a $25 maximum on ticket prices in 1977, the tradition has snowballed since. In that time, the number of official balls has also increased -- from one on Truman's watch, to five on President John F. Kennedy's, culminating with 14 in 1997 for President Bill Clinton.

Bush reduced that number to eight balls in 2001 and nine balls in 2005.

Lichtman said an expensive affair is "not the people's ball." But he cautioned that throwing one in earnest could present a serious problem. Case in point: The inauguration of Andrew Jackson in 1829.

"He threw open the White House to the public," Lichtman said. "That was the last time anyone tried to do that kind of a celebration."