WASHINGTON — Marvin Lyman figured it would be a breeze to fill two charter buses to go from Missouri to Washington for President Barack Obama’s inauguration, just as it was four years ago when Lyman’s phone rang off the hook with people eager to make the trip.
But as December turned to January, the Kansas City restaurateur weighed canceling the trip as he struggled to find enough passengers to fill one 45-seat bus.
“Right now it looks like a group right at 18, so we’re coming,” said Lyman, co-owner of Papa Lew’s soul food restaurant. “In 2009, we had 106 people, we had two 55-passenger buses. It’s definitely not like the first time.”
When Obama takes the oath of office outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 21 and looks onto the National Mall, he will see a different landscape than he did in 2009.
Then, an estimated 1.8 million people poured onto the Mall to witness the first African-American president sworn into office. Now, District of Columbia officials estimate that between 600,000 and 800,000 people will attend Obama’s second swearing-in, a steep decline from 2009 but an above-average audience for a second-term inauguration . George W. Bush’s second inauguration attracted between 300,000 and 400,000 people. Bill Clinton’s likely drew around 450,000.
The expected drop in attendance isn’t a sign for a lack of enthusiasm for Obama’s re-election, according to Lyman and others. With the historic novelty of the first inaugural gone, coupled with today’s challenging economy, polarized political climate, minimum stay requirements imposed by some Washington-area hotels, and images of people shivering in the bone-chilling cold during the 2009 swearing-in still fresh in the minds of many, more people are choosing to stay home and watch the event on television, they say.
“People are very excited about Obama being re-elected, but not excited about going to D.C. and enduring the cold like the last time,” Lyman said. “Some of it could be financial. Some people overspent over the holidays and I know some people’s job status changed in the last four years.”
David Goldfield, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said this year’s inaugural seems to lack the buzz and sense of anticipation that Obama’s first one had.
“It’s subdued in the sense that January 2009 was a very historical occasion,” Goldfield said. “Obama’s campaign generated a considerable amount of hope and prospect. . . . But a lot of programs Obama touted in 2008 didn’t receive a lot of discussion in Congress – immigration reform, the environment. Also, there this dreadful deadlock in Congress that has turned some people off.”
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he’s noticed a lower wattage toward the inauguration from his constituents and his colleagues on Capitol Hill.
In the weeks leading to the 2009 inaugural, Cleaver’s office was flooded with more than 5,000 requests for tickets. This year he said he’s only received 1,700 inquires.
The lower demand is just the nature of second-term inaugurals, according to Cleaver.
“Having been the first African-American mayor of Kansas City, I can tell you the second time around isn’t as exciting as the first. People have already been a part of history,” he said. “My first inauguration was one of the biggest in Kansas City. The second time, you could have had it in my garage.”
Delores Reid-Smith, a member of the Charlotte chapter of the Martin Luther King Jr. Planning Committee who is organizing a bus trip from North Carolina to Washington, summed up the projected attendance drop more succinctly: Obama “isn’t a newbie anymore.”
Even the president acknowledged that the thrill might be gone for some of his supporters. After national voter turnout surged to 62.3 percent in 2008, it fell to 57.5 percent in November, the lowest figure since 2000, when 54.2 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
“So, I’m a littler grayer now. It’s not as trendy to be involved in the Obama campaign as it was back then,” Obama said at a Chicago fundraiser last March. “Some of you have rolled up those HOPE posters and they’re in the closet somewhere.”
Andrea Young, a school speech pathologist from Norcross, Ga., said nothing could have stopped her from attending Obama’s 2009 inaugural. She made the journey on a bus initially chartered by South Carolina Republicans.
This year, she tried to organize a bus trip to Washington through her Spartanburg, S.C., church, but that fell through. Now she’s considering driving with friends or traveling by bus with another church group.
“I’m excited, but I have obstacles in front of me,” Young said. “I thought it would be a slam-dunk organizing a bus trip, but people are lacking finances.”
Neither finances nor the Atlantic Ocean is stopping Verna Brandford from attending Obama’s second swearing-in. The London resident was there in 2009 and booked her flight to attend this year’s ceremony moments after the American television networks called Ohio for Obama on election night.
“To have witnessed such a historical moment clearly cannot be repeated,” Brandford said in an email interview. “However, this time is an even more momentous occasion for me as your president as a man of color did not only attain the unattainable once in 2008 but did it a second time in 2012. What are the chances of that happening in one’s lifetime?”