Obama Inauguration: Too Many Tickets, Too Little Space

While of no consequence whatsoever to the tens of millions who watched the inauguration from the cozy comfort of their living rooms and offices (as I did) yesterday’s event was ruined for more than a few die-hard Obama supporters who braved hours of bitter cold only to be denied entry to the event.

WaPo’s Inauguration Watch blog notes that “Many visitors today were turned away before the beginning of the Inaugural events. Even ticket holders had trouble getting into the ceremony. People with purple, silver, and blue tickets, in particular, reported being shut out of their designated locations.”

My daughter and I spent over two hours on the Metro. When we arrived at the blue ticket entrance the line went around the HHS building. After two hours in line they closed the blue gate and thousands were left out of seeing the inauguration. No big screens. No speakers. Just arrogate [sic] guards closing the gate…

FireDogLake‘s Gregg Levin calls it the “Worst. Inauguration. Ever.”

So, I don’t even know how to write about this without it sounding like bitter grousing, and frankly, I’m a little embarrassed to have to report that after five hours of standing in the bitter cold, getting pushed and shoved to the point where you start to feel for your safety, and being herded to and fro, the most I can report about the inauguration is that the 21-gun salute is really loud.

So loud, in fact, you can feel it outside the security perimeter.

That’s right, despite having in hand magic purple tickets, and lining up hours before the gates opened, I saw nothing. I heard, beyond the guns, nothing.


And then, shear, crushing disappointment descends over the crowd. Unlike the smiles on all the faces you walked by on, say, election night, or in the metro last night, this crowd had to summon up all they had left after multiple hours in the cold to give a tepid ovation to the inauguration of a new president.

I know because this was how I felt. And then I felt selfish for feeling that way. But the disappointment, amplified by the cold, and the overall expenditure of energy over not just this election cycle, but the eight years of Bush misrule, really made it hard not to feel utterly crestfallen.

Marc Lynch, a foreign policy advisor to Obama, suffered a similar fate.

I went to the show with a few friends who received excellent Purple tickets as a reward for untold hours volunteering as foreign policy advisers for the Obama campaign.  We got down to the security checkpoint for the Purple section bright and early (I left home at 4 AM), and were guided into a long tunnel which had been closed to traffic.  We waited in line for nearly four hours, in a claustrophobic tunnel with no porta-potties, no food or drink, and not a single official or volunteer in sight.  Finally, we got within sight of the Purple Gate — only to find that it had been closed.  Thousands of people in front of us hadn’t gotten in (not that anyone bothered to tell the people languishing in the tunnel that the gate had been closed, mind you). Thousands of purple ticket holders were behind us.  It’s remarkable that there wasn’t a riot.  I rode the metro home with a lot of people who had been turned away, including an elderly African-American woman muttering over and over to herself that it had been one of the worst experiences of her life.

TPM’s David Kurtz recounts other tales of woe. For example:

I had a purple ticket to view the swearing in ceremony. I got in the ticket line (the I395 tunnel was the line) at 6:30 this morning and was shut out of the event – over 4.5 hours in line and no dice. In fact, there were no police, barricades, signs, or directions. Think of it – 30,000 plus (and i’d venture over 50,000) standing in a tunnel for 4 hours with no public safety personnel. And then they don’t get in. We are lucky that we aren’t hearing reports of injuries. Truly negligent.

Aaron Brazell got through:

The execution of security and official communications outside the perimeter was abysmal though, ranking extremely low on the Aaron Brazell assessment evaluation of official communications. As West Capitol Lawn ticket holders designated to the “purple area”, we eventually abandoned hope of actually gaining entrance and walked nearly a mile to get obstructed view spots near the Washington Monument shortly before the ceremony began. We were not the only ones affected by the “purple bug” yet we managed to jump ship early enough. Others were not so lucky.

Now, I don’t blame Obama personally for this; I can’t imagine he was personally overseeing the event. I don’t know who was. And some of what Levin and others describe was just as true in 2004, which had perhaps half as many people trying to get through. Unless you’re a true VIP or have press passes as a primary representative from one of the major media outlets, you’re just not going to see much at an inauguration. I’m glad I saw one in person; I have no interest in seeing a second.

That said, from what I gathered from local (DC) television, security people were locking ticket holders out hours before the event. And people well behind them in line had no clue this was happening, so people stood in 27-degree weather for hours for nothing.

We do this every four years. Yesterday’s presented unique challenges because demand was historically high. But even “ordinary” inaugurals are a giant mess. Because you can’t park or ride the Metro anywhere near the event, you have to walk for miles in a sea of people. There’s far too little direction given. It’s truly amazing that the people running them haven’t figured out how to do it right yet.

Part of the problem is that the people running security are concerned only with the safety of the VIPs, not whether people are disappointed.

“It was an absolute success,” U.S. Capitol Police Chief Phillip D. Morse said of the effort, which involved more than 30,000 law enforcement officers and military personnel from across the country. Although there were numerous complaints about chaotic procedures at security checkpoints, the event went off without serious disruption.

No doubt that’s the most important thing. But it’s not good enough for the millions who are there to witness history.

It may well be, incidentally, that this is as good as it gets. The Mall is only so big and it’s hard to manage crowds. Maybe the real answer is to figure out how many people can be safely and efficiently accommodated and limit the number of tickets accordingly. Far better to disappoint people ahead of time than after they’ve driven across the country and spent hours in the cold.

UPDATEMarc Danziger says that security was pretty lousy, too.

TG and I received only a cursory search as I went through the checkpoint at the end of the lengthy line; whether because of the ineptitude above or the pressure the (very nice, very calm) Capitol police felt to get people moved through. They made two glaring mistakes with us – one I won’t point out publicly because it was so serious – and wound up waving me through the metal detector with a pair of Steiner binoculars under my arm. Binoculars that contain as much metal as a small handgun.

He’s also less sympathetic than I am on the issue of logistics:

Look, with all respect, this isn’t rocket science. I’ve been to a Super Bowl, to a Rose Bowl, to Daytona and other places where they move low-six-figures worth of people (note that I’m talking about the elite ticket holders who were between the Reflecting Pool and the Capitol – but as to the parade, I’ll point out that parades with half a million in attendance happen all the time and while this one is different (need for security, etc.) it’s not that different. By comparison, the organization of crowd control here was criminally incompetent; only through luck is it that no one was injured because of it.

It may be, though, that orders of magnitude more people makes a difference in degree a difference in kind.  Not to mention that the Rose Bowl and other athletic venues are actually designed to accommodate spectators; the Mall is a giant park with various monuments, museums, and such that seldom hosts crowds of this size.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. rodney dill says:

    They’ll get used to disappointment

  2. Triumph says:

    Now, I don’t blame Obama personally for this; I can’t imagine he was personally overseeing the event. I don’t know who was.

    It was overseen by Diane Feinstein. The Senate organizes the inauguration.

    This is EXACTLY what you get with liberals in charge. Nothing but a bunch of failed promises and wasted money while the elite dine on pheasant and duck on the taxpayer’s dime.

    Welcome to the Union of Socialist Obama Republic.

  3. Richard Gardner says:

    I’m with you, I’ve seen one and had no desire to be anywhere in downtown DC yesterday.

    I know some people that flew red-eye cross-country and experienced the same. After arrival on Monday they waited 3 hours to get their coveted tickets. They got in line at 6:30AM and texted “Waiting in line. We’ve never seen a line this big.” They had the gates close when they were near and didn’t make it in. At least they managed to then get to the parade area in time.

    At least there weren’t many disruptive protesters on the Mall this time. Last time I saw groups ranging from black-bandanna’d anarchists pulling down the flag at the Navy Memorial, to the annoying Phelps’ clan.

  4. Steve Plunk says:

    I would much rather see the oath of office given in a private ceremony with quiet dignity rather than the quasi-coronation the inaugurations have become. Throw in the protesters who seek every opportunity to disrupt a public event and the incompetence of organizers and it’s obvious why such a private ceremony would be better for us all.

  5. caj says:

    Oh Triumph just get over yourself what a constant moaner you are….liberals this and liberals that.
    Why can’t you conservatives get a real life and stop trying to blame everything on the liberals as we had a fantastic 8 years under Bush!!!…… NOT!!!

  6. Dave Schuler says:


    You probably should know that Triumph is our resident satirist.

  7. Steve Verdon says:

    I’m glad I saw one in person; I have no interest in seeing a second.

    I have no desire to see even one. I’m put out by the apparent cult we’ve built up around the presidency.

    If I still lived in the DC area I’d have high-tailed it to Clarendon metro stop or maybe Falls church for some excellent vietnamese food.

  8. Steve Verdon says:


    Dave is right…and get used to it. The Democrats are in power now and whether it is fair or not they are the ones who are going to get the blame if things go pear shaped.

  9. caj says:

    Yes, I do understand that it will be the Dem’s turn to take the blame, but you can’t appoint blame yet to someone who has not even had but one day as President!!! That’s my only argument.

  10. Dantheman says:

    “You probably should know that Triumph is our resident satirist.”

    And here I thought that was bithead’s job.

  11. Michael says:

    Look, with all respect, this isn’t rocket science. I’ve been to a Super Bowl, to a Rose Bowl, to Daytona and other places where they move low-six-figures worth of people

    In every example given, there is not only a pre-defined and fixed number of places available, there is a pre-defined and fixed volume that people can fill. If I have a ticket to the super bowl, I get one seat, and I’m not allowed to take up one and a half. Standing on an open lawn, you have no idea how much space a person is going to actually fill, so while you can maybe pack 100k people in a given area, in reality it depends more on the individuals than the available space, because some people will consume more space than others.

  12. Michael says:

    And here I thought that was bithead’s job.

    No, Bithead believes the things he says are true.

  13. Joey Buzz says:

    I believe Bush was responsible for overselling the tickets. I actually heard on NPR this morning that it was not due to the over selling of tickets but the fact that everybody had bulky clothes on to ward off the cold and thus occupied more space….

  14. Michael, the reality is that people who do festival-style concerts have exactly the data that you’re talking about. And I’ll bet that the issue wasn’t that the areas were ‘oversold’ but that the process was so FUBAR’ed that they couldn’t get people into their areas before the gates shut (on the ‘elite’ ticketed areas) at 11:30.

    James, each of the venues I mention is purpose-built; but they spend enough to purpose-build a festival-type venue there, and that isn’t rocket science either.


  15. Eneils Bailey says:

    Obama Inauguration: Too Many Tickets, Too Little Space

    Obama Inauguration: Too much hope, Too little reality.

  16. Michael says:

    Obama Inauguration: Too much hope, Too little reality.

    Actually there was too much reality, it couldn’t all fit.

  17. Steve Verdon says:

    Yes, I do understand that it will be the Dem’s turn to take the blame, but you can’t appoint blame yet to someone who has not even had but one day as President!!! That’s my only argument.

    It was his inaugeration, his people that planned it. Am I to blame Bush, Clinton or Carter instead?

    I’m very confused, please help.