Summary List Placement
America could be in store for a very different kind of presidential inauguration celebration in January as the coronavirus pandemic rages on and renders large gatherings unsafe.
Those fancy balls and parades that are so synonymous with the swearing-in ceremony are now up in the air. Slap a giant TBD sign around all those big swampy parties where lobbyists and incoming administration bigwigs exchange resumes and map out policy game plans. It’s pretty hard to envision a big free U2 concert on the National Mall.
By all accounts, what’s coming in a little more than two months will be a toned-down affair that looks nothing like the weeklong extravaganzas of yesteryear — no matter if President Donald Trump wins a second term or Democrat Joe Biden beats him.
Zoom may even be an option.
“I think there’s a real likelihood that we would have a socially-distanced and heavily masked ceremony, and it would be dramatically slimmed down,” said Matt Dallek, a political historian and professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
For now, at least, the official inauguration organizers are operating as if things are normal, in as much as anything is normal during a deadly global pandemic.
Construction of the platform — which in normal times would overlook throngs of supporters spread out on the National Mall and beyond to the Washington Monument — continued on Election Day even as much of Washington stayed quiet amid boarded-up storefronts in anticipation of post-election chaos. A long fence had cordoned off a large section of the Capitol outdoors as workers in hard hats and brightly colored-vests hammered away.
Everything else seems to be wide open.
Just as other major in-person events such as the Democratic and GOP national conventions modified their arrangements this summer so that key players participated virtually, the prospects are high that only a handful of people would be physically in attendance for the actual inauguration ceremony that has come to symbolize the hallmark of American democracy with the peaceful transfer of power.
Sen. Roy Blunt, the chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Committees, told Insider in July he was thinking about that exact possibility while also noting his bipartisan panel had just voted for preparations “as if it will be a full-scale inauguration.”
Last week, Blunt announced the theme for the nation’s 59th inaugural event — “Our Determined Democracy: Forging a More Perfect Union” — but also acknowledged things could be a bit different this time.
“This great American tradition has occurred in times of peace, in times of turmoil, in times of prosperity, and in times of adversity,” he said in a video posted on Twitter. “So, when the country and the world gather — whether it be at the Capitol or in front of a television — we will witness an event that has become both commonplace and miraculous. It is our best traditions — like an inaugural ceremony — that are essential in our pursuit of a more perfect union and a brighter future for all Americans.”
‘A ceremony but not a celebration’
The Constitution doesn’t require an elaborate inauguration ceremony or that the oath even be taken at the Capitol. But the congressional organizations in charge of the official proceedings have the biggest say in how far what happens in January departs from recent tradition.
What’s clear is that there is indeed a specific date (January 20) and time (around noon) for the presidential and vice-presidential oaths to be administered, as well as the 35 words they must repeat in order to hold the office.
Beyond that, there’s no single script for the main event. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson became the first president to use the Capitol. He took his oath inside the Senate chamber. Nearly a century and a half later, in 1945, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt swore his fourth oath from the South Portico of the White House. His own failing health and a still-raging World War II were among the reasons the Democrat skipped the large crowds, parade, and inaugural ball.
More recently, President Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural ceremony in 1985 — held a day after he took the official oath at the White House because Jan. 20 that year landed on a Sunday — got moved indoors to the Capitol Rotunda to dodge the biting cold (temperatures hovered below 10 degrees Fahrenheit that day).
“You can’t obviously compare these to an inauguration in a pandemic,” said Dallek.
Whoever wins the election— a final result may take days to come— is also sure to get to weigh in on some of the proceedings.
Experts expect Biden would likely follow the guidance of public health experts and do much of his inauguration streamed across social networks and without live attendees other than the chief justice of the United States and members of the new First Family.
“In other words, a ceremony but not a celebration,” said Claire Wofford, associate professor at the College of Charleston’s Department of Political Science.
With Trump, GOP insiders envision a reelected president who would press to appear before the public, participate in the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue and eager to slow-dance with his wife at a well-attended expensive inaugural ball. After all, Trump in 2017 famously but inaccurately boasted about the record size of his inaugural and throughout the pandemic has largely downplayed the deadliness of the disease.
“I would predict a totally virtual inauguration only if the virus reaches a level we cannot yet imagine,” Wofford said.
Trump could also back out of a smaller event at the Capitol and opt instead for an event elsewhere that he can have more control of, said Tom Basile who was press secretary for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies in 2005. He also served as site director for President George W. Bush’s 2001 Presidential Inaugural Committee.
“Of course, the president could say — if they want to do a drastically scaled-down ceremony or a ceremony where there is no public at all — the president could say that he wants to do it at the White House on the South Lawn and on the National Mall, or do it at the Lincoln Memorial,” Basile said.
Trump opted to have part of the Republican National Convention at the White House in the summer to get around pandemic-induced crowd restrictions in the cities previously picked for the event.
The Trump and Biden campaigns did not respond to requests for comment on their latest inauguration plans.
Time for donors and party planners to get creative
Just like the Super Bowl has morphed into so much more than a football game, presidential inaugurations are also more than just the official ceremony. But the COVID-19 pandemic may have a say in all that.
Wealthy donors and lobbyists jockeying for influence in the incoming administration are bracing for cancellations or scaled-back events including the typically lavish inauguration balls and expensive sideline receptions.
In 2017, donors such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, AT&T and Boeing gave Trump more than $100 million to help him throw his parties, nearly doubling the $53 million Barack Obama had brought in when he took his first oath in 2009. A $1 million gift to Trump’s inauguration bought the donor a seat at a luncheon with cabinet officials and members of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“Essentially you’re throwing a bunch of posh weddings across Washington, DC,” said John Hudak, the director of the Center for Effective Public Management and a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “And we do know from research that that can have an impact on things like political appointments.”
With the pandemic raging, donors are expected to get creative.
“Lobbyists don’t usually have a problem finding their way into making contacts even in an inauguration defined by a pandemic where the celebrations are really muted and also where you can’t have big lavish indoor parties that we’re accustomed to seeing where people donate millions of dollars,” Dallek said. “I don’t think it’s going to deprive them of the kind of access they’re trying to gain.”
While inauguration planning may be a bit presumptive, both campaigns’ fundraising apparatus have already adjusted to the pandemic’s restrictions on in-person gatherings by organizing creative virtual events.
Biden has for instance spent little to raise money as he’s relied on online events conducted over video conferencing in recent months, according to The New York Times. Trump’s digital campaigning has also been a bounty for drawing in its supporters and collecting critical information like email addresses that can be used for later solicitations.
“I imagine a lot of people who would otherwise maybe go throw a big fundraiser for a big ball or do some kind of other very high profile in-person event might be able to do something that is just as high profile virtually and maybe actually at a fraction of the cost,” said Hans Noel, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University.
Jean Bordewich, who served as staff director of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies for the second Obama inauguration in 2013, said she can reimagine an event in which the singers and poets invited by a new president would instead perform virtually.
“I think we should have a small event in Washington, which then takes advantage of the technologies that we’re using every day now…that allow people to participate from around the country,” she said. “We can just nix the parade this year. It’s not something that we need.”
So no U2, the Irish rock band that performed one of its hit songs on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for Obama’s swearing in as the country’s first African-American president?
“That’s highly unlikely,” Dallek said.
Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Why thoroughbred horse semen is the world’s most expensive liquid