With Obama center stage again, students take front row

by Chloé Sorvino and Cory Weinberg

The curtains are about to rise on Act II of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Americans watched an up-and-down first act – filled with austere scenes of economic uncertainty and triumphant legislative battles – and now GW students have a front row seat to the start of his second term.

Students’ excitement for hope and change may have demurred since 2009, but the inauguration still serves as a reminder of GW's proximity to power and as an after-party for months of political activism.

In 2009, students joined the nearly 2 million who people carried suitcases full of fervor to D.C. to ring in the first black president. Nearly 50 students paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in the University’s $130,000 float, which stretched 70 feet and took four months to build, featuring a large inflatable globe, a student-constructed Baja car and a real-time stock ticker.

This year, a half-million people will visit. President Barack Obama’s second term does not carry the Superman-like expectations of the first. Students registered 550 guests, as opposed to 800. There is no float.

Students drove the design process in 2009, but this year there was little to no interest in devoting funds to a float, Student Association President Ashwin Narla said. The only other time GW built a float was in 1949 for President Harry Truman.

GW has traditionally canceled classes for the day that’s become almost a once-every-four-years homecoming football game. This year, the event falls on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a designated day off.

The swearing-in, parade and balls will be particularly sweet for Democrats whose swing-state door-knocking helped the Obama campaign cruise to victory Nov. 6.

Senior Spencer Dixon, president of GW College Democrats who served as an organizing fellow at Obama for America’s Virginia headquarters, said inauguration, for him, is a day for staffers to celebrate.

And while signs around campus point to a toned-down reaction, he stressed that this swearing-in is just as important, if not more so, than Obama’s historical first.

“It’s more about politics – keeping the gains we made, sustaining it. It was more about progress. It means even more to the people who were involved,” Dixon said. “It’s more meaningful because he had been president and we were working to maintain that.”

Senior Juliana Amin received tickets to the inauguration after being a fellow on the campaign last semester, but decided to give up her seat to volunteer alongside more than 80 GW College Democrats she organized to work as a crowd controller farther back on the Mall.

“Working on the campaign was one of the best experiences of my life, and I’m not really ready to let that go yet,” Amin said.

She said she will focus more on her College Democrat friends on Inauguration Day since she spent election night with her colleagues, getting off work at the Virginia headquarters at 10 p.m., just before Obama was announced as the winner. What she loves about both groups, she said, is the passion for grassroots campaigning and volunteerism.

“They know we’re not going to be in the ticketed section. We’re not going to be hanging out with the President all day, but they don’t care,” Amin said. “They’re going to get to say they’re a part of this inauguration.”

In 2009, hundreds of students rented out their rooms or offered up their couches for the out-of-town visitors clamoring to be part of one of the most watched events in history.

As Obama spoke from the Capitol about civic responsibility and unity, the flood of people reached back to the Washington Monument. A record crowd danced at GW’s Inaugural Ball.

Edward Berkowitz, a professor of history and public policy, said GW was at the fulcrum of the celebration that year.

“The University has always realized it’s in the middle of things,” Berkowitz said. “It’s part of this Washington community, and that really becomes apparent at events like inauguration. It becomes a GW celebration as well.”

This year, government officials expect much smaller crowds, estimating between 500,000 to 800,000 visitors to D.C.

Obama will only hold two official balls, the fewest in a half-century, but still will pile 40,000 people in the Washington Convention Center and trot out stars like Alicia Keys, Katy Perry, Usher and Stevie Wonder. GW still sold out tickets to its unofficial celebration just before midnight on Election Day.

After spending a day watching the president’s public swearing-in, either sitting in ticketed seats by the Capitol or after staking out prime standing room on the National Mall, about 5,500 students, faculty, staff and alumni will dress in black-tie to celebrate at GW’s sixth-ever Inaugural Ball at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Woodley Park.

Students know it as GW’s prom: A $100 ticket includes seven ballrooms filled with acts ranging from a live band playing top hits to jazz and swing ensembles to student performers.

In 2008, GW charged $85 per ticket, and upped the price for students who bought tickets off the waitlist.

But for some conservative students, who hoped for Monday’s swearing-in would feature Republican candidate Mitt Romney pledging his oath, the event now won’t be as thrilling.

Sophomore Alex Miller bought his ticket on Election Day when the exit polls still looked hopeful, before more electoral votes went blue.

He sold his ticket, declining to provide the profit he made, because he said instead of being a GW-focused night, he said sees the ball as a celebration of Obama’s next term. He will watch inauguration, though, because he said he still wants to feel the patriotic spirit.

“It’s ok to put petty politics aside and celebrate the nation regardless of if you’re the winner or the loser,” Miller said.

This year’s celebration will also be more tempered around D.C.

John Sides, an associate political science professor, said the complicated politics of Obama’s second term – worn down from fights over health care and fiscal cliffs – could dampen people’s inaugural expectations this year across the country.

“What is different is the underlying political climate and configuration of power,” Sides said. “In 2012, Obama does not confront the economic emergency he was confronting in 2008. That much is good. But he also faces many more limitations on his power, thanks to the Republican takeover of the House.”

Berkowitz agreed. He said while inaugural celebrations have come far from John F. Kennedy’s speech where a smaller crowd filed in behind the Capitol, the differences between 2009 and 2013 would be evident.

“The euphoria from the first inauguration has faded,” he said. “It’s just not going to be the party it was four years ago, and boy was it a party.”

Elorm Sallah contributed to this report.

This article was updated Jan. 17, 2013 at 10:52 a.m. An earlier version of the article had inadvertently been published.

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