Fineman: Washington's Pre-Inaugural Crosscurrents

If the impact of an event can be measured in barricades, fences and rows of portable toilets, then Washington is about to witness either the second Siege of Stalingrad or the Second Coming itself.

These last days before the inauguration of Barack Obama are an emotional riptide of fear and hope. The air here is full of news of economic collapse and civil celebration, of banks caving and movie stars arriving, of government going broke in a city suddenly (and temporarily) full of tuxes and bling.

Rarely in our history has so much hope been piled on the shoulders of one man at such a schizophrenic moment.

In the old days, inaugurations were held in March, which made seasonal sense: early spring for a new beginning. Now we do them in the dead of winter, which is not the mood we want.

Since 9/11, Washington has been obsessed with security; the advent of Obama and the inaugural festivities has redoubled that obsession. As a result, streets are blocked by squad cars (protecting the Obamas' hotel and now the Blair House); the National Mall is ringed with metal fencing; and Jersey barriers line streets and sidewalks that only days ago were open and unnoticed by the authorities.

Inside the U.S. Capitol, security is tighter than ever. More public places are off-limits, probably forever; certain passes now require finger-printing and a full criminal background check.

Along the avenues that line the Mall, work crews are erecting towers of stadium-level loudspeakers, which soon will amplify for millions of adoring listeners the words of the newly sworn-in president.

Meanwhile, inside the Capitol, the normally quiet pre-inaugural interregnum has been replaced by something approaching controlled frenzy. The Speaker has floated the House Democrats' new economic-rescue plan, which would be by far the largest and most expensive piece of legislation in nation's history. As Citibank nears collapse, it seems increasingly evident that vast chunks of the American economy are being nationalized—a first outside of wartime.

There is a hurried, bus-station feel inside the august hallways. I happened to be in the gallery when Sen. Hillary Clinton gave her farewell speech to the Senate. She kept insisting that America's best days lie ahead, but she didn't sound convinced. (Of course that may be because we had been too stupid as a nation of voters to choose her to be president!)

I saw her afterwards in the Senate Lobby, and stuck out my hand to congratulate her on her new assignment as Secretary of State. "I wish you the best of luck," I said, and meant it.

"We're all going to need all the luck we can get," she said, and sounded like she meant it.

And yet, amid the gloom and foreboding, the frantic planning continues, gathering urgency as the start time for myriad parties, balls, dinners, and concerts approaches. All you need to stage one is: a political dignitary of some kind (almost any member of the Obama circle will do); a C-list or higher Hollywood celeb; a restaurant or hall; a paying sponsor and charitable one (any charity will do.)

As a person—as a potential world leader—Barack Obama brings smiles to so many faces. He seems so comfortable with who he is, so capable and eager for the challenges that lie ahead.

Jersey barriers be damned. Let's have a party!