Washington – With his nation under financial strain, President Barack Obama is restricting the inaugural balls to the lowest number in 60 years, with just two official parties plus a concert honoring military families.
The subdued celebration revealed Thursday is a big cut in reveling from the 10 balls Obama attended four years ago. Planners say the austerity in festivities is a reflection of tough economic times and an effort to minimize the burden on law enforcement, other security personnel and Washington residents.
Both balls are being planned at the Washington Convention Center on Monday, Jan. 21, the evening of Obama's public inauguration at the Capitol on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Under the Constitution, the president's second term begins Jan. 20 at noon, but he'll be sworn in privately at the White House -- with limited media coverage -- since inaugural celebrations traditionally aren't held on Sundays.
One party will be the Commander In Chief's Ball, a tradition started by President George W. Bush for members of the Armed Forces. Tickets will be free for invited guests, including active duty and reserve service members, Medal of Honor recipients and wounded warriors, among others, with troops overseas participating via video. The other ball is simply being called the Inaugural Ball, and some tickets will be available to the public.
The Presidential Inaugural Committee, which is putting on the parties with donated funds, has yet to announce ticket information or details on talent that will perform at the celebrations. The president and first lady plan to attend both official balls, per tradition. Several other unofficial balls are being planned across Washington during inaugural weekend, giving Obama's supporters plenty of opportunity to celebrate albeit without their president in attendance.
The inaugural committee also is planning a children's concert on Sunday, Jan. 19, hosted by first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, as part of their ongoing effort to support military families. The concert, also being held at the convention center, will honor children and spouses of those serving in the Armed Forces and feature popular young artists to be announced.
Inaugural organizers are expecting a drop in attendance for the whole inaugural affair this year compared with 2009, when a record 1.8 million packed the National Mall to see the first black president sworn into office.
But in recent times, presidents have tended to increase the celebration to kick off a second term. Bush went from eight balls in 2001 to nine in 2005, although he openly loathed the public display of dancing that is traditional for the first couple and sped through the parties in drop-by fashion. President Bill Clinton went from 11 balls in 1993 to a record 14 in 1997.
The tradition has its roots with the country's first inauguration in 1789, when sponsors held a ball in George Washington's honor a week after he was sworn into office in New York City. The first official inaugural ball was 20 years later, when James Madison's wife, Dolley, hosted a $4-per-ticket hotel gala for 400 guests.
President Jimmy Carter attempted to strip the balls of their glitz and glamour post-Watergate in 1977, calling his seven "parties" and charging no more than $25 each. And there is earlier precedent for avoiding an elaborate celebration, with Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Pierce and Warren Harding requesting no balls at all.
President Harry Truman revived the official ball in 1949, and organizers for President Dwight Eisenhower's inauguration in 1953 added a second event due to great demand for tickets. Eisenhower doubled the celebration to four balls in 1957.
According to the Senate historian, no president since Eisenhower has had as few as two official inaugural parties.