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Inaugural Weekend: Pop and Pomp, But a More Muted Obama Fest

WASHINGTON As President Obama took the oath of office on Sunday, a couple miles away in Georgetown was a quintessential scene of the D.C. Beltway.

At Cafe Milano, a famed eatery for the city’s establishment, cabinet secretaries and Capitol Hill lawmakers mixed with media pundits, a smattering of Hollywood celebrities and other industry types.

Yet despite a crush at this Newsweek-The Daily Beast brunch to get down a short red carpet and to the main dining room, there was still an unmistakable difference in the mood of this inaugural weekend from four years ago. In 2009, there were more people, more parties, more events, but also an obvious historic importance to the swearing in of the new occupant of the White House.

This time around, the sequel is sometimes straining, sometimes sobering in living up to the original.

That is not to say there isn’t a lot of media attention around this inaugural. Networks are planning extensive coverage throughout Monday, and are using the day to show off the occasional innovation or twist.

On the National Mall, CNN has erected an elaborate, well-heated stage set, where Wolf Blitzer anchored a special edition of “The Situation Room” on Saturday night as about 100 people watched from behind a fence, sometimes even chanting his name, with a lit Capitol grounds in the backdrop. Much of the hour was to cut away to a Kids Inaugural Concert going on right then. Among the topics: Usher’s performance.

It may not be history, but it is what most inaugurals are, pomp and circumstance. At the events surrounding this inaugural, the urgency of being there for a great new chapter for the country has given way to a much more pragmatic need to see and be seen. Gone is the huge branding presence, like a Pepsi campaign that seemed to go hand and hand with hope and change. There is still huge merchandising, the usual T-shirts and caps, but also a framed print that one shop near the White House was selling for $395 called “Callin the Red” featuring Obama playing pool against Lyndon Johnson, with Andrew Jackson, John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt and other deceased predecessors looking on. Legacy takes strange turns.

“Four years ago it was a singular event,” said David Axelrod, the former White House senior adviser, said as well wishers shook hands with him at the Georgetown event. “Everybody’s feet were a few inches off the ground. But it is still wonderful.”

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said, “It is like being at a wedding and then a fifth anniversary. It is wonderful, and you are glad things worked out so well.”

The industry presence is here — but not what it was like in 2009, when plenty of entertainment figures, like Leonardo DiCaprio and George Lucas, showed up just for the sake of being an eyewitness to history. Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of Obama’s biggest fundraisers and donors to his SuperPAC, didn’t plan to make it this time around, nor did Steven Spielberg. He dined at the White House recently at the family private quarters along with “Lincoln” screenwriter Tony Kushner and Daniel Day Lewis. Few show biz names were on a recent list of inaugural donors.

Instead, many of the boldfaced names here this time around have a defined role: James Taylor, Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce are here to perform at the swearing in at the Capitol on Monday. In addition to Usher, Katy Perry and members of the “Glee” cast were among the headliners at a Kids Inaugural Concert on Saturday. Will.i.am, Common and John Legend played in the atrium of the National Portrait Gallery on Saturday at an event for twentysomething empowerment org Our Time.

On Monday, some of the performers at the two official inaugural balls include  
Alicia Keys, Brad Paisley, Chris Cornell, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Hudson and Marc Anthony.

And co-hosting a number of events is Eva Longoria, who was an Obama campaign co-chair, and has established herself as an activist for Latino causes.

Others who are here, like Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon, co-chair of Obama’s Southern California finance team, were heavily involved in the campaign. Many members of the finance team, including a group from California, were treated to a weekend of events that included a candlelight dinner, briefings by senior advisers and an event at the White House on Friday where they mingled with Vice President Joseph Biden, as well as choice accommodations like the Hay-Adams Hotel.

Also present is Harvey Weinstein, among the co-hosts of the Newsweek-Daily Beast event, who also raised extensively for Obama.

Speaking on a makeshift stage at Cafe Milano, he put in personal terms of why he worked for the campaign, noting that he grew up in the city projects in rent controlled housing.

“I am a successful product of a government that cares,” he said.

The theme of the brunch — bipartisanship — was perhaps indicative of one of Obama’s high hopes that hasn’t come to fruition. some of the talk was a performance by Usher. There were conservatives there, like Grover Norquist, who chatted with MPAA chairman Chris Dodd until Longoria joined them, gave Norquist a hug and posed for pictures.

Quipping about the mix of personalities, Daily Beast editor Tina Brown quipped to the crowd, “All that is missing is Clint Eastwood. He’s having a conversation with a park bench.”

Others present included current and up-and-coming administration figures Valerie Jarrett, Gene Sperling, John Kerry and Shaun Donavan.

Some expressed hopes that the divisions in Congress are beginning to soften, although the recent fiscal cliff fight and coming debt ceiling battle seem to have pointed to a slog ahead.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Republican who nevertheless endorsed Obama twice, tried to get through the crowd without being slowed by extensive conversation.

As a group of reporters rushed to him to get a quote, he said, “I am not doing interviews.” Then he gave away his reason for the rush, a buffet line at the restaurant’s rear.

“Look at the food,” he said.