Heilemann: The Alterna-Inauguration

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Somehow this just doesn't seem like a white tie year. Photo: Getty Images

Even before it got going Saturday, the Obama Inaugurapalooza always threatened to be a monumental exercise in overkill — a multi-day, media-saturated, celebrity-suffused extravaganza so far over the top that even some of the president-elect's most ardent boosters might find it mildly queasy-making. I'm not talking here about the actual inauguration: Obama's swearing in and speech on Tuesday will surely be awesome moments. But the ancillary diversions swirling around the main event have ranged from underwhelming to surprisingly off-key, and in certain cases out of sync with Obama's customary M.O. All in all, it makes you wonder if there might have been a better way to handle this whole deal — and, indeed, I think there was.

I was physically present at most of the big Obama spectacles of the past two years, but these past couple days have been for me televisual experiences. The whistle-stop tour struck me as contrived to the point of ridiculousness. The aim here was to echo Lincoln, but, as CQ's Craig Crawford noted, "If Lincoln had done what Obama did — embrace the memory of past presidents by emulating their mode of transportation — Old Abe would have already been in Washington, but then boarded a train to Philadelphia, returning on a horse." (Even sillier in the be-like-Lincoln department: The menu at Obama's post-inaugural lunch features foods — seafood stew, duck, pheasant — that the sixteenth president is thought to have enjoyed.) The concert on the mall on Sunday was a snooze. And the balls on Tuesday night promise to be as opulent and pointless as they always are.

Then there's the cost of the whole shebang, with current estimates running north of $125 million. It's worth noting that George W. Bush's 2005 inaugural cost just $42 million — a figure that elicited howls of protest from the left and calls for restraint from Democratic legislators including New York's own Anthony Weiner. Some of Obama's critics on the right are complaining similarly now. If Obama were really "serious" about changing Washington, former House majority leader Tom DeLay said the other day, "he would announce to the world: 'We are in crisis, we are at war, people are losing jobs; we are not going to have this party. Instead, I'm going to get sworn in at the White House. I'm going to have a nice little chicken dinner, and we'll save the $125 million.'"

For all the obvious reasons, it troubles me to write the following words ... but DeLay has at least half a point. Not that Obama should have denied himself (and his supporters) a bit of grandeur and merry-making, but the kind of party his inaugural planners cooked up doesn't really suit either the grim times the country is facing or Obama's style. The event feels too conventional, too typical, not as new and different and paradigm-busting as we've come to expect from him.

What if, instead, the Obama people had made the Washington component of the inauguration as minimalist as possible — just the speech from the steps of the Capitol? What if they'd canceled all the balls and parties inside the Beltway and instead used their grassroots network to stage mini-inaugurals in every state of the union, each of them a charity benefit on behalf of a designated local cause? Such a course would have set a starkly different tone, one focused not on celebration but on civic engagement. It would have provided an object lesson in how Obama and his crew intend to use the web in dramatic and purposeful ways outside the campaign context. It would have allowed them to expand their already enormous network. And, most of all, it would have been genuinely new.

I know, I know, the Obama people are using the web to enable lots of local inauguration parties. And they've tried to open up the proceedings, to make them more accessible, in other ways as well. But none of those efforts carry with them the vast symbolic impact that a radically devolved inaugural would have done. I can't help but think that Obama and his people missed a trick here — one that would have sent a powerful message, accomplished a great deal in concrete terms around the country, and benefited them politically in the bargain.