WASHINGTON President Obama’s inaugural address included a call to end the bitter “spectacle of politics,” but on Monday, he still embraced all its pageantry and pomp.
James Taylor and Kelly Clarkson had star turns on the Capitol Hill platform, and Beyonce gave such a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner that, at least among those inaugural goers up close, she invited comparisons to Whitney Houston.
But as Obama launches a second term amid plenty of jubilation here, there is a question of just how much he will continue to tap Hollywood. His many trips to Los Angeles were to raise money, by many accounts a ritual he hardly craves but does out of necessity. Compared to his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, Obama has been somewhat detached: Little late-night courting and conversation. A recent dinner in the private quarters with the team behind “Lincoln” was an unusual gesture during his off time.
But many of his supporters say he will continue to draw on ties to the entertainment industry, even as he is freed from the demands of fundraising for another term.
His inaugural address signaled a renewed commitment to tackling climate change and immigration reform, an unprecedented mention of gay rights and a repeat of his vow to push a major new initiative on gun control.
All are certain to engage many industry activists, with the recent announcement that the campaign apparatus will continue as Organizing for Action perhaps a signal that showbiz figures will be used to rally grassroots support around issues in the same way they were deployed for his reelection.
Bruce Roberts, who along with Eric Ortner led the Entertainment Advisory Council for the campaign, said that the president would “absolutely” continue to engage show biz. Their org helped organize industry figures, such a campaign surrogates, including a meeting with Obama in the fall of 2011.
He said they are now talking about next steps.
“He appreciates what we have done, and of course he will be” tapping show biz, said Roberts from the steps of the Capitol before the swearing in, as the U.S. Marine Band played John Phillip Sousa. “Everything is being planned right now. Everything is being sorted out right now. We have a lot of different things going on. We are really going to push. …Now we are just going to twist things around and see what we can do.”
He added, “Hollywood and Washington are really two different animals, and they don’t really speak the same language half the time, but they have the same focus.”
In the immediate term, the administration is likely to continue to work with entertainment lobbying groups on gun violence, although Vice President Joseph Biden’s recent meetings signalled that it may not have the extensive focus that media mayhem had in the Clinton years. Going forward, a lot of the attention is expected to be on enhancing or promoting voluntary ratings for parents.
But in the long term, Obama’s engagement with the industry is expected to continue to reflect the multiracial and multicultural coalition that were critical to his reelection.
The lineup of musical talent for the inauguration — from Alicia Keys to Far East Movement to the cast of “Glee” — signals a desire to spotlight diversity, particularly in the arts. The Obamas have revived PBS’ “In Performance at the White House,” and have appointed many industry figures to an arts policy committee. The choice of one of the inaugural co-chairs, Eva Longoria, was a recognition of the importance of a well-recognized figure who is forging a new role as a Latino activist.
Obama’s inaugural address invoked, in an indirect way, the role that the media can play in politics. In doing so he eluded, as he has before, to the discourse on cable news and talk radio.
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” Obama said.
Some veteran Washington figures who have been pushing for compromise — yet have seen the town descend into even more gridlock — saw Obama’s inaugural address infused with the message that even if post-partisanship fell short, in many ways change didn’t.
“He knows he can’t force the Republicans to do things, but he is going to try and he is going to use the power of this office, which is considerable, to move them in that direction,” said Matt Bennett, VP of public affairs and co-founder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic org. “But mentioning Stonewall, and mentioning gay equality that explicitly twice in an inaugural address and it marks a sea change in American politics where these things went from being the fringes to literally in the center of what an inaugurated president was talking about in his address.”
Bennett was at the Old Ebbitt Grill, where his org, along with WHC Insider and Huffington Post co-hosted a party in full view of the parade route.
As revelers hovered around windows to wait for Obama’s motorcade, he added, “Things have changed massively. I think that because we live in this hyperfast information age where everyone believes they know everything will be quite different from the judgment of history.”
That sense of history is what drove many to DC four years ago; this time around, the mood was different, a mixture of jubilation and even a sense of relief.
Many of the media — accustomed to being placed toward the back — found themselves in the front row for the swearing in. In fact, it was movie-theater close, in that the view forced them to crane their heads and the lack of cell service prevented them from Tweeting. If there were complaints, they were a bit sheepish.
There was a bit of a sensation when Katy Perry and John Mayer, bundled up, arrived at the Capitol, stopped a bit in the media area and, still hounded by cameras, left for apparently better seats.
Nevertheless, it was nothing like it was four years ago, when telephoto lenses aimed at the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi to catch candid paparrazi shots worthy of Us.
Logistics were easier.
“I was here four years ago, only I was in the purple tunnel of doom. We never got in,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby Network and head of Nuns on the Bus, referring to the hundreds if not thousands who were trapped in a tunnel trying to get in, part of a security snafu.
This time around, she was up toward center front.
“Four years ago, it was like, whoooo. this is great. This is exciting. We did it. Something happened. Now this year I think we realize what hard work we face, how we have got to come together as a nation, none of us can quit. In some ways the election was the easy work, and we have to do policy. And it is way more difficult, but all of us need to come together to do that.”
The proceedings went almost flawlessly. A protester shouted from a tree during much of the ceremony, and when Obama spoke, the sound of a train engine could be heard.
That was a far cry from four years ago, when the spirited moment was contrasted with the negative hand gestures and boos aimed at former President George W. Bush’s helicopter as it flew off across the Mall.
Elaine Greene brought eight members of her ministry org Sisters With Purpose, having arrived by bus from Brooklyn, N.Y. at 3 a.m. on Monday to make it in time. She was here in 2009, but didn’t want to miss this history: The second inauguration of an African American president.
“The first one was even more people, and they got emotional about the inauguration,” said Greene, the chair of the org, who along with friend Angela Roper was bundled up in a long fur coat. “This one is rejoicing, and glad to see he won. Before it was tears everywhere around. Now it is rejoicing and happy and glad, hoping that we are going to go forward doing better.”
And what did she think of the ceremony the second time around? “I kind of think it went on a little too long,” she said, laughing.
Maybe that’s the difference between spectacle, and all of Monday’s pomp and circumstance. The former is fleeting; with the latter, it takes a bit of time to get to the final act.