Obama's PR Machine Fuels 'People's Inauguration'

Events Can Offer Continuation of His Campaign's Marketing Muscle

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The West Front of the Capitol during a rehearsal for President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony.
The West Front of the Capitol during a rehearsal for President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony. Credit: AP
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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- Call it the People's Inauguration. There will be more events before the swearing in; more places for people to observe the ceremony; more shoulder room at the Inaugural Parade for spectators; and even inauguration balls for the average Joe (if not Joe the Plumber) to kick up his heels.

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But as a whirlwind of activity begins around President-elect Barack Obama's installation into the White House Jan. 20, the question is whether the event will endure as a powerful statement of hope and unity to the world, or become a historical footnote should the administration ultimately fail to correct the country's woeful economic problems and soaring unemployment.

Marvin Kranz, the retired American history specialist of the Library of Congress, cautioned that inauguration activities don't necessarily translate into imagery that matters long term. "Most inaugurations are remarkably banal," he said. The long-term impact is a "matter of performance."

Live on HBO
But Mr. Obama's will surely be inclusive. There will be a Lincoln Memorial event featuring both he and Vice President-elect Joe Biden, along with major musical stars, that will be open to the public. That event will be telecast live on HBO, which for the 90 minutes will be free to cable and satellite viewers. On Tuesday for the swearing-in ceremony, the committee arranged to remove trucks from the normal staging areas and add TV sets and provide additional space for people to stand to watch.

Four years ago, tickets were needed to watch the Inaugural Parade; this time, visitors can stand on Pennsylvania Avenue to gawk. The inauguration committee also made bleacher seats available to the public.

Then on Inauguration Night, new and thriftier balls have been added to the more traditionally lavish ones. "The president-elect has been committed to holding the most open and accessible inauguration in history," said Shin Inouye, a spokesman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

Inauguration historians aren't so sure. Mr. Kranz said Andrew Jackson bolstered his "man of the people" image in 1829 by bringing up to 20,000 people to the inauguration and to the White House after his speech. "They broke up the White House. They came in, put muddy boots on furniture, tore down drapes and broke windows and only left when someone put tubs of rum punch on the lawn," he said.

He said there have been other more recent examples of more-people-oriented inaugurations. Jimmy Carter walked the length of the Inaugural Parade, giving the ceremonies a folksy touch. Bill Clinton had activities including a Lincoln Memorial event before being sworn in.

Don Richie, a Senate historian, said the scope of the activities aren't unprecedented, but the number of people attending may be. While numbers of attendees are hard to agree on (Lyndon Johnson claimed 5 million people attended his ceremony), 800,000 people rode the Washington Metro system for the first Clinton inauguration.

Sending a message
But even if it isn't the biggest, or the most open, it will certainly send a serious message to politicians, U.S. citizens and world leaders. "If [Mr. Obama] is eventually perceived as being the president who led us out of this swamp, it will contribute to his 'change agent' image," said Ben Goddard, president of Washington ad agency Goddard Claussen. "The short-term significance is the perception that he's a different kind of leader," he said. "The 'public inaugural' adds to the buzz -- and the fear -- on the Hill that he leads a grassroots army."

"The symbolism of having perhaps the most public presidential inauguration in history is significant because it challenges the notion that only Washington, D.C., insiders and political leaders should celebrate our new president," said Rich Masters, a partner at Qorvis. "With the world watching perhaps 2 to 3 million people standing shoulder to shoulder on the National Mall, it should send a strong signal abroad that our nation is united, strong and optimistic about our future."

That feeling was echoed by Sean Cassidy, president of Dan Klores Communications. "Symbols matter," he said. "Obama's very public and open inauguration sends an important message of inclusion and shared experience that will help to solidify his image as a pioneering and transformational leader."

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