Washington — Unemployment is up. The stock market is down. Let’s party.
The price tag for President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration gala is expected to break records, with some estimates reaching as high as $150 million. Despite the bleak economy, however, Democrats who called on President George W. Bush to be frugal four years ago are issuing no such demands now that an inaugural weekend of rock concerts and star-studded parties has begun.
Obama’s inaugural committee has raised more than $41 million to cover events ranging from a Philadelphia-to-Washington train ride to a megastar concert with Beyonce, U2 and Bruce Springsteen to 10 official inaugural balls. Add to that the massive costs of security and transportation — costs absorbed by U.S. taxpayers — and the historic inauguration will produce an equally historic bill.
In 2005, Reps. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., and Jim McDermott, D-Wash., asked Bush to show a little less pomp and be a little more circumspect at his party.
“President Roosevelt held his 1945 inaugural at the White House, making a short speech and serving guests cold chicken salad and plain pound cake,” the two lawmakers wrote in a letter. “During World War I, President Wilson did not have any parties at his 1917 inaugural, saying that such festivities would be undignified.”
The thinking was that, with the nation at war, excessive celebration was inappropriate. Four years later, the nation is still at war. Unemployment has risen sharply. And Obama pressed Congress to release the second half of a $700 billion bailout package in hopes of rescuing a faltering banking industry.
Obama’s inauguration committee says it is mindful of the times and is not worried people will see the four days of festivities as excessive.
“That is probably not the way the country is going to be looking at it,” said committee spokeswoman Linda Douglass. “It is not a celebration of an election. It is a celebration of our common values.”
Douglass said the campaign sought to keep costs down by having the same decorations at each of the 10 balls, eliminating floral arrangements and negotiating prices on food.
“Those at the Obama administration are trying to be reflective of the climate,” McDermott’s spokesman, Mike DeCeasar, said Saturday.
Today’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial includes performances by Sheryl Crow, Stevie Wonder, Garth Brooks and others. Denzel Washington and Queen Latifah will read historic passages. HBO paid $2.5 million for the exclusive rights to broadcast the concert.
Monday, the inaugural committee is hosting a national day of service, followed by three “bipartisan dinners” and a concert at the Verizon Center honoring military families. The Disney Channel will broadcast the concert, which includes performances by teen stars Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers, as part of a $2 million deal that also gave ABC the exclusive rights to broadcast one inaugural ball.
The television deals allowed the committee to recoup about $5 million of the $15 million production costs for the televised events, Douglass said.
Security and transportation costs are being paid by taxpayers. And with millions of tourists expected to descend on Washington for Tuesday’s inauguration ceremony, Bush declared a state of emergency, allowing the district to recover some costs for the event.