Cheez-its and Barack on fire: A modest party for the second Obama inauguration

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Ben Jacobs

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WASHINGTON—Cheez-its and pretzels.

These were the hors d'oeuvres served at Barack Obama’s inaugural ball Monday night. Held in the cavernous and sparsely decorated Washington Convention Center, the event felt a little like a junior prom. There were formally dressed men in varying levels of discomfort, women teetering in heels as they stood in snaking lines for the bathroom and a clear sense of social segregation.

There was a rotating cast of celebrities on stage, singing a few of their greatest hits,  and a complex system to get alcohol, with lines for drink tickets and then drinks as well, making for a relatively sober affair. 

There are traditionally about ten inaugural balls, held in locations scattered around the district. This year, there were just two, which is the fewest since Martin Van Buren took office. One was the Commander In Chief’s Ball, which is for veterans. The other was the Inaugural Ball, which was for everyone else. The crowd was anticipated to be 40,000 people, but it never got that full at any one time. Instead, attendance ebbed and flowed. People streamed in late to make their appearance or bustled out early after seeing the president and the first lady make theirs.

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This gave the event a disjointed feel. The crowd seemed tilted towards the end of the room with the stage. The area also included a holding pen for special guests, a category of people that included celebrities and semi-celebrities who were entitled to perks like chairs, unlike the masses outside the pen. Here, there were huddled masses, middle aged couples packed in tight, dancing together, and former campaign staffers frantically instagramming. The lines here to take pictures were long. There was a special inaugural logo that attendees could pose in front of to prove that they were there. 

Many, if not most, of the attendees seemed just happy to be there. Charles Cornell, 48, of St Louis was attending the ball as a surprise Christmas present from his wife. She had won a lottery to get tickets and they flew out to Washington on Thursday to make a weekend of it.

Others were less impressed. One former Obama staffer grumbled that he was only attending because his girlfriend insisted. He was far more excited about the staff ball, which was supposed to be the big party. In 2009, “Arcade Fire played for an hour and a half and did all their songs and then Obama came out and then Jay-Z was on stage for two hours,” he said. “You don’t often get to see Jay-Z perform in front of only 4,000 people.”

Others attendees mentioned, in hushed tones, various other, more exclusive gatherings planned for later in the evening.

The musical guests at the event were mostly A-list, and gave perfunctory performances. The lineup was geared towardthe type of mainstream R&B that had been a staple at Obama’s campaign rallies: Stevie Wonder, John Legend and Alicia Keys, who sang that “Barack Obama is on fire.”

But the entire musical spectrum did have to be represented. There was a Mexican band, a hipster band and a country singer. They were all introduced by the house DJ, who put on hip hop and Michael Jackson between sets. This led to some rather jarring transitions, most memorably when the crowd was encouraged “ to make some noise for Brad Paisley.” (They didn’t.)

The crowd was, naturally, most enthusiastic when first Barack and Michelle Obama made their brief appearance and, an hour later, when Joe and Jill Biden did the same. The Obamas appeared first on stage, slow dancing to Jennifer Hudson, who emerged behind them singing "Let’s Stay Together."  The Bidens repeated the same routine when they appeared, only with Jamie Foxx singing instead. 

By midnight, the room was starting to empty out. Some people were slumped against walls trying to get reception on their cell phones, some who'd managed to get drunk were dancing. The Cheez-it bowls had long since been emptied and the lines for pictures were starting to thin. People had flights to catch and jobs to do in the morning. But they'd made it to the prom, even if the better prom was the one four years ago.