Millions set to cheer Obama’s inauguration

In a little over a week’s time history will be made in the heart of the capital when Barack Obama is sworn in as the nation’s first black president witnessed by millions of jubilant supporters.

Washington will be the proud host of the January 20 inauguration of the 44th president, marking the dawning of a new era ushered in by the wildly popular Obama and drawing the curtain on the controversial reign of George W. Bush.

Initial estimates that up to five million people might descend on the sleepy city — population normally around 600,000 — have been revised downwards to between 1.5 million to two million visitors.

The sheer size of the crowds though is posing a logistical challenge to city planners and security agencies who have not seen anything on this scale since the 1965 inauguration of John F. Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson, attended by 1.2 million people.

Officials and Obama’s transition team have spent months since the November 4 elections pouring over maps and charts aiming to accommodate the crowds while ensuring they, the president-elect and his family are kept safe.

Inaugurations date back more than 200 years to the very first one held for George Washington in New York in 1789. But the realities of the 21st century mean each inauguration poses tough new headaches.

Some nine square kilometers, a huge swathe of the downtown area encompassing the White House, the National Mall and the Washington Monument, is being locked down from Monday afternoon until just after dawn on Wednesday.

And the secret service has said they will boost existing restrictions on the airspace above the White House and the waterways.

Obama and vice president Joe Biden will take the oath of office towards midday on Tuesday. Obama will swear on the bible which once belonged to his avowed hero, assassinated president Abraham Lincoln.

The historic Bible with its gilded edges and burgundy velvet binding is being used for the first time since the 1861 inauguration of Lincoln, the 16th US president who brought about an end to slavery.

"The president-elect is committed to holding an inauguration that celebrates America’s unity, and the use of this historic Bible will provide a powerful connection to our common past and common heritage," inaugural committee executive director Emmett Beliveau said last month.

On Saturday, Obama, his wife Michelle and their two daughters Malia and Sasha strode up the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial — site of Martin Luther King Jr’s inspirational 1963 "I have a dream" speech — to pay homage to the 16th US president.

Ten huge video screens and 100 loud speakers are being erected for the crowds who will be kept under the watchful eye of some 8,000 police officers — 1,000 more than for Bush’s 2005 swearing in — and 11,500 troops.

After the inauguration on the steps of Capitol Hill, a military parade will march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House where Obama and his family will take up residence.

But while Obama’s transition team has said the inauguration is for all Americans, securing a place to witness the event, being staged at a cost of some 75 million dollars, may prove tough for even the hardiest souls.

Inauguration-goers will only be able to enter the parade route through 13 designated check-points. No backpacks, bottles of water, umbrellas or strollers will be allowed. And crowds will have to stand for hours, on what is likely to be a cold winter’s day.

The city’s hotels and those in the surrounding suburbs in Virginia and Maryland are mostly full, and moving around the city is likely to be a nightmare.

"DC’s subway system… is expecting ‘crush-level’ crowds," inaugural officials said last week.

The festivities are set to continue long into the night as Washington rocks around the clock with a flurry of balls to welcome the new president.

Obama is hosting 10 official balls, but with a galaxy of stars set to light up the day’s events some of the unofficial balls may well be the place to be seen.

The Creative Coalition, a non-profit group, has snagged Sting and Elvis Costello to play at their ball set to be attended by such celebrities as Spike Lee, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon.

Obama also plans to hold a "neighborhood ball" offering cheap tickets to residents in a break with past parties which have usually only catered to a powerful, wealthy elite.

"This is an inauguration for all Americans," Obama said last week. "I wanted to make sure that we had an event that would be open to our new neighborhood here in Washington DC, and also neighborhoods across the country."

Tuesday morning’s most keenly watched news item though is likely to be the weather report, amid hopes that nothing will rain on Obama’s parade.