The Cost of an Inauguration: Dollars and More

Analysis of the political implications of President Obama’s inaugural address has begun and will continue through the State of the Union address. Additionally, analysis of less central parts of the event are up for critique by the general public: bike lanes, the First Family’s fashion decisions, and Joe Biden’s facial expressions throughout the day are all already being picked apart by experts and Twitter users alike.

The inauguration involves only three legal events: the swearing in of the president, the swearing in of the vice president, and the official nomination of the president’s new cabinet members. However, though relatively politically simple, the day is a relative logistical nightmare, requiring the city to accommodate 700,000 attendees (more than the population of the city itself) to a very cold and very high-security event.

These logistics require a huge amount of work for the city’s transportation and law enforcement infrastructure. This year, Metro Police received reinforcements of about 2,500 officers from outside of the city for the event. Transit Authority altered a number of Metro and Metrobus routes, closing some stations and extending hours on January 21, as well as having to temporarily close four stations during the day due to overcrowding. Transit Authority, the Department of Transportation, the Congressional Inaugural Committee, and the Secret Service also all provided extensive and immediate information about road closings, metro information, and security restrictions throughout the weekend. The DOT (@DDOTDC) went so far as to provide users with immediate personalized travel advice.

As much as the celebrations are famed for their expense, these travel and law enforcement requirements cost taxpayers the most money – the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia are estimated to spend about $75 million. The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies has a budget of only $1.24 million of government money for the ceremony. The $45 million for the two inaugural balls and military ceremony, as well as other events throughout the weekend, are raised from private donations.


The president and first lady dance at one of two inaugural balls the couple attended.

The amount of donations, and their leverage for personal favor, is reminiscent of campaign donations. While in 2009, the Washington Post reports, corporate giving was limited to $50,000, in 2013 there is no limit. If individuals give $250,000, they received tickets to a private reception and bleacher seats for the parade. Currying favor with the new administration is a barely unspoken benefit of donations to the inaugural efforts.

Official and unofficial balls featured Will.I.Am, Fun., Alicia Keys, and a slew of other artists. Tickets to unofficial parties ranged from $50 to $5,000 per ticket (at the Creative Coalition Inaugural Ball). Over the weekend, the various parties are at the center of a gigantic meet-and-greet of some of the more influential and/or famous members of society.

The above proves the extent of the celebrations involved in this relatively simple political event. In the next two weeks, there will be praises and criticisms of the president’s speech, the behavior of the attendants, and the organization of the events. In four years, the planning for the ceremony will begin again – perfecting and, possibly, expanding the proceedings.

The 2017 inauguration, like this year, will again cost a fair amount in both working hours and taxpayers’ dollars. But one thing that is often obscured in inaugural ceremonies – and was certainly tangential this year – is the cost of human lives and freedom acquired over 250 years of United States history.

In his address on the 21st, the president did refer to the costs of the American experiment: “The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob.” The sense of obligation seemed almost misplaced amidst the rest of the day’s celebrations.

Past inaugural poets have more directly recalled the sacrifices in American history. Miller Williams, in his 1997 poem, could not speak of the United States landscape without reflecting on “The great and all the anonymous dead.” Maya Angelou, in 1993, addressed the country’s history of war: “Your armed struggles for profit have left collars of waste upon my shore,” and the losses of the Native Americans: “you Pawnee, Apache and Seneca, you Cherokee Nation . . . forced on bloody feet, left me to the employment of other seekers–desperate for gain, starving for gold.” These past poets served as reminders, among the pomp, of what the President spoke of in his address: “the price that is paid for liberty.”

Elizabeth Alexander expressed this sentiment most clearly in her 2009 inaugural poem, during the largest and one of the most extravagant inaugural celebrations in US history: “Say it plain: that many have died for this day.”

Inaugurations are historically a time of celebration, but they are also inextricable from our country’s history of violence – whether the deaths were unjust, or sacrificed for the sake of the state. Inaugurations serve as a perennial reminder that our government is a relatively young political experiment – the history of which is not unsullied.

-Elisa Shearer, a 2012 Houghton College grad, is currently pursuing a Master’s in Communication, Culture and Technology at Georgetown University.