A not-so-upbeat cherry blossom season

Thousands of digital cameras are snapping that famous shot of the cherry blossoms framing the Jefferson Memorial and the Tidal Basin here despite bouts of chilly, rainy weather, but, somehow, the mood is not the same this year.

Oh yes, there are the life-sized cardboard cutouts of Barack Obama, with tourists taking turns photographing each other draping an arm familiarly over his shoulder. The sweatshirt and T-shirt vendors aren’t suffering. Hotels, featuring special savings packages, are doing well. Museums, even the few that charge admission, are crowded. The subways are doing a brisk business. Restaurants feature cherry desserts and drinks. Exhibits on Abraham Lincoln, born 200 years ago, are legion. But the mood is not as upbeat as usual.

The official estimate is that at least one million tourists will visit Washington this year during cherry blossom time, which celebrates the gift of 3,000 cherry trees from the mayor of Tokyo to the District of Columbia in 1912. (A shipment of 2,000 trees in 1910 was burned because of disease and insect infestation.)

But even with students giddy at being on spring break and families from every state eager for some fun, the mood is more somber this year in this lovely period between the end of winter and all-out spring.

The official National Cherry Blossom Festival ladies’ waterproof jacket has been reduced from $65 to $45. More families are packing their own snacks instead of stopping for $2 bottles of soda and chips. Rooms in nice, downtown hotels are still available for $200 to $300 a night.

Tourists from North Dakota feel guilty because their friends and families are battling flood disaster back home. Military families on leave feel guilty because so many friends and relatives are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Parents are admonishing children to pay attention to tour guides because this isn’t just a fun trip — you need to know this stuff for school.

Crowds flocking to the White House to peer through the iron fence were talking about the European trip of President Obama and the increasingly popular first lady Michelle for an economic summit. People who said they never paid attention to such events were discussing, with no small degree of skepticism, what the European summit might strive to do to ameliorate the deepening worldwide recession. The simple fact of being a tourist in Washington made them think about the G-20.

You hear snippets of conversation in the subway and in museums and waiting to tour the Capitol. People are worried about the future. Those with jobs are worried they won’t keep them. Everyone knows someone who is unemployed. Those with children worry about paying for college. Those with homes worry about paying the mortgage.

One man shelling out $72 for tickets to the Spy Museum said he had lost his job as a car salesman but had promised his family he’d take them to D.C. this spring. He refused to discuss what he plans to do when he gets home but said all the talk in Washington about a trillion dollars here and a trillion there was depressing him.

Obama is all about restoring Americans confidence in their economic system, their country and their leaders. We want to believe he knows what he is doing although we suspect he’s got his fingers crossed behind his back. We don’t want to think the banking system is broken, but deep in our hearts we believe it probably is. We want to hope that at least by the end of 2010, jobs will come back, housing prices will increase and those obliterated 401(k)s will return to some form of normalcy.

Completely unable to know what will happen, we take our children to see Washington and its spectacular monuments. We hope we’re inspiring the next generation to love this country and its traditions. And, for a short while, we take comfort in the splendor that nature produces every spring in our beautiful capital city.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)