By Dahleen Glanton and Katherine Skiba, Chicago Tribune reporters
January 20, 2013
At their wedding reception in 1992, Barack Obama and his bride, Michelle, made their way to a table to greet three women who had taken him under their wings as a young community organizer.
Loretta Augustine-Herron, one of the women in his memoir, "Dreams From My Father," recalls him asking them, "Can I get you anything?"
"When you are elected president," she told him, "we want an invitation to the inaugural ball."
According to Augustine-Herron, he replied, "You've got it" and flashed his toothy smile.
But four years ago, invitations never came for the three women, who appeared in Obama's book under the pseudonyms Angela, Shirley and Mona but are still known in the community as "Obama's Mamas."
They assumed that Obama's wedding-day promise had fallen through the cracks amid the hoopla of his first inauguration. They convinced themselves that they were better off staying home watching the festivities on TV. The truth is that they were heartbroken.
But this time around, the president came through. Two weeks ago, Augustine-Herron, 71, and Margaret Bagby, 74, both of Calumet City, and Yvonne Lloyd, 83, who recently moved back to her native Nashville, Tenn., received an email inviting them to Washington.
"The First Family would love if you could join them for festivities during the Presidential Inauguration in D.C. from Saturday to Tuesday," the invitation said. Not only will the women be going to an inaugural ball, they have three tickets each to the swearing-in ceremony and the inaugural parade.
"We were very disappointed and hurt the last time," said Augustine-Herron, who is making the trip to Washington with her friends this weekend. "This time, my dream is to shake his hand, look him in the eye and call him 'Mr. President' to his face."
In the U.S. and around the world, enthusiasm for the Obama inauguration is far dimmer than it was four years ago. Even Oprah Winfrey is sitting it out this time.
An estimated 1.8 million people crowded the National Mall in 2009 to witness Obama taking the oath of office, the largest turnout for a presidential inauguration ever. Thousands of Chicagoans were among them: Obama relatives, incoming administration officials, well-connected friends and donors, and average people who put up with an overnight bus ride.
Four years ago, Rahm Emanuel was Obama's incoming chief of staff. Today he's Chicago mayor and host of a talked-about late-night party — the "post-party" or the "closer," it's called — that begins at 11 p.m. on Inauguration Day and runs until 3 a.m. the next. He said he was "very excited" about the swearing-in and was bringing his family along.
Inaugural planners are girding for swearing-in numbers more in line with those predating the Obama presidency — 500,000 to 700,000 people. Numbers leap when there's a change in power between the political parties; they fall when the same man takes the oath for the second time.
A swearing-in ticket remains a hot commodity. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., had 1,300 tickets to distribute and requests for more than 5,000, said Christina Mulka, his spokeswoman.
"Our goal is to make sure as many Illinoisans as possible from all parts of the state and all walks of life get a chance to witness this historic event," Mulka said.
Most House members, such as Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., got 177 tickets. The Chicago lawmaker had more than 3,500 requests, said aide Tumia Romero, who noted that economics kept others from asking.
"Some people who tried to organize buses have had to cancel," she said, "because people can't afford to attend."
Demand in GOP Downstate turf was less. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., from Taylorville, found his 177-ticket allotment enough to satisfy all requests, spokesman Andrew Flach said.
Party planners are eyeing lower numbers too. In 2009, an Illinois State Society Ball drew 5,000, but Saturday's crowd was expected to be half that, said Suzanne Ing-New, who led the planning.
"The last time around was an anomaly," she said. "We're never going to see that again. We're never going to have a first African-American president. We may see the same level of enthusiasm if there is a first woman president."
Many of the people traveling to the capital now are campaign volunteers who worked to get Obama re-elected in November. About 50 volunteers from the Democratic Party of Oak Park planned to leave Sunday by bus.
Some said they want to show their support for the president as he fights for issues such as gun control and health care.
"For a lot of people, it's a different feeling this time. It's more to show the president that we are still with him, that we've still got his back," said Donald Harris, a Chicago activist who organized two buses for 110 people, including trade union members. "We hope he can look out there and see the thousands of people and know that he is not alone up there fighting."
Mae Ya Carter Ryan, 11, of Chicago, has been invited to sing the national anthem at one of the unofficial galas, the Illinois Presidential Inaugural Celebration on Sunday, but she and her mother, Ina Carter, on their first trip to D.C., were empty-handed when it came to tickets for other events. Still, they're happy.
"I might meet the president, so I'm really excited," said Ryan, a sixth-grader at Haines Elementary School in Chicago. "I'm looking forward to everything, and I can't wait to visit the museums and the Capitol."
But even some of "Obama Mamas" don't think they'll get close enough to say hello.
"I'm excited mostly about being able to see him," Bagby said. "But I envision him waving at the crowd and not even seeing us."
Sitting in the living room of Augustine-Herron's home last week, the two women reminisced about the three years they worked on race and poverty issues with the tall, skinny young man with a boyish face hired to take the helm of the Developing Communities Project.
As Augustine-Herron talked about how she felt that Obama was right to try to reach a compromise with Republicans in Washington on issues such as gun control, the budget deficit and the debt ceiling, Bagby fidgeted in her chair, becoming increasingly agitated at the conversation.
"Loretta is very learned and up-to-date, but I think she loves Barack so much that whatever he does is just fine," she quipped. "I love him too, but I'm so mad with him for not just telling those people, 'This is what I want. Just do it!'"
That's what they used to tell Obama when he started in 1985, but he preferred to find the middle ground, they said. They taught him how to get inside the culture of the neighborhoods so he could determine what the problems were. In turn, he taught them how to work to solve those problems.
"When he came in for the interview, I was sitting next to Yvonne and she turned to me and said, 'Loretta, Loretta, he's so young,'" said Augustine-Herron. "I said, 'Girl, they're going to eat him up out there.'"
They were mistaken. He taught them organizing skills so they would be more effective in the community. And though he never forced his will on anyone, they said, it was always clear what he wanted.
"Whenever he tells you, 'I don't think …' he's telling you that he knows what he wants. And you really need to look out when he says, 'My sense is that …'" Bagby said.
It didn't take long for them to realize that he had the potential for greatness.
"We've been mesmerized ever since we met him. We've always felt like his second mom," said Augustine-Herron. "We used to always fuss over him and try to get him to eat right and not go into some of the bad neighborhoods. That's why we went with him most of the time. He was fearless, and we were scared something would happen to him."
For now, they are satisfied just being invited to the inauguration, even if they don't get to give him a hug.
"I'd like to get a note to him and ask him to invite us to an event when he comes home to Chicago," she said, "so we can remind him how to kick (Republican House Speaker John) Boehner's behind."
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