After Inauguration, Obama Celebrates with His Network

If nothing else, this week the city of Washington was Obamafied.

The usually desolate downtown streets were packed, overflowing with the kind of exuberant, multiracial young crowds that are rarely seen anywhere in America except for concerts and sporting events. They were here to celebrate, to cheer and to party, of course, but this time with a palpable civic pride. At all the political and government events I've attended, I've never seen this kind of spirit. In fact, it was more striking than election night in Chicago's Grant Park, when the Jumbotrons first broadcast the reality of President Obama. Then, it was all emotion. People rejoiced, screamed and cried.

Now, most everyone seems composed, focused, even resolute. People came here to bear witness, to be together, to physically join the concise ritual of swearing in the president. For most attendees, that meant waiting over four hours in the bitter cold to watch the process on Jumbotrons, then spending several more hours trudging away from the National Mall, which was paralyzed by the tight security and record crowds. Given the views, logistics and weather -- never mind the cost -- there were no obvious advantages to actually attending this inauguration. And yet.

All the superlatives and records were a blended mess by Tuesday afternoon, drained of significance from televised repetition, but this was the largest turnout in inaugural history. The reason is simple: people wanted to Be Here. They may have met online, or watched Obama from afar, but they still think that living the experience in person, together, matters. That may be the ultimate rejoinder to the cynics who blithely dismissed the Obama campaign's focus on web organizing and youth outreach -- and the ultimate rebuttal to the luddites who have long declared, without data, that the rise of online politics dooms our society to a strictly virtual, atomized isolation. In reality, connected networks can swiftly build political power and civic capital out of thin air, from funding a longshot campaign to convening a nonpartisan day of service to honor Dr. King.

At the very last inaugural celebration, Obama met back up with the nucleus of his network, speaking at a "ball" for aides and volunteers on Wednesday night. He reminisced on how they managed to put him in the White House. "Look at you," he said, as his eyes scanned the happy, exhausted crowd. "You guys are so young. Maybe it's because so many of you are so young -- or young at heart -- that you could imagine what hadn't been done before. You didn't know any better when people said I couldn't win." Now, everyone knows better.