What Obama's arrival means for Washington

It's not just about policy and politics but the town, too.

By Thomas Schaller

Published November 10, 2008 11:14PM (EST)

Barack Obama has visited the White House before, but not like he did today: as president-elect of the United States of America. It's weird just to type those words.

Obviously, his arrival -- in the literal sense today and the broader political sense on the national scene as president -- means far more to the policies, domestic and international, and the politics of our nation. But his arrival in Washington itself, in the physical sense, as a town, also carries with it meaning to those of us who live here.

I moved to Washington in March 2001, which means that for my entire time here George W. Bush has been in office, and I have been here for almost his entire administration. I have no comparable experience. I'd visited D.C. many times before, of course. But living here is different, for all the great (and not so great) reasons, the most significant of which is this: Washington is a company town, and the business of that company is government. Sure, there are people who work in the arts, business, fashion, whatever. But if you work in government or politics, the mood of the town is defined to some degree by who is running the government -- which party, sure, and which individuals from those parties.

Having Bush in Washington has been a downer in a lot of ways that have nothing to do with his failed policies or nasty politics. He has, according to those who move in such circles, ruined the traditions of the State Dinner. And, in general, he is associated with bad news and bad outcomes, gloom and doom. Even though he vacations a lot, his temporary departures do little to change the overall mood.

Maybe I am alone in this feeling among Washingtonians, but watching Obama arrive today is exciting because the town already feels different. It surely did Tuesday night: I saw grown-ups literally skipping through the streets, like middle-schoolers, heading toward the White House. I had never seen such a sight in D.C. before, and can only anticipate what the mood will be on Jan. 20, 2009.

Which brings me to my final point: Jan. 20 will be one for the memory books. If you've haven't been to Washington lately, or ever, I can't think of a better excuse to come than for the inauguration. It will be expensive and crowded and quite possibly bone-chillingly cold to be here. But days like this one come around maybe once a generation, if not once a century.

Obama's visit to the White House today was merely a prelude, a small tease.

Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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