President Obama’s second inauguration was marked by pomp and grandeur, lofty rhetoric and large reviewing stands for VIPs, but many in the nation’s capital were fixated on three words about 1 inch tall.
Mr. Obama’s presidential limousine sported the District’s protest license plates emblazoned with the city’s “Taxation Without Representation” rallying cry. The slogan calls attention to the federal taxation of more than 600,000 city residents despite their lack of voting rights in Congress. The protest plates are symbolic, but their appearance on the president’s limo turned his motorcade into a rolling billboard for the District’s plight.
Mr. Obama plans to use the tags for the remainder of his term, continuing a practice that President Clinton embraced when the license plates were introduced during his second term. President George W. Bush opted against the plates.
The sitting president’s decision followed intense lobbying from city lawmakers, including a pair who visited the White House this month.
D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and other leaders said they hope his embrace of the “taxation” plates portends more aggressive efforts on their behalf in his second term.
“We hope not only to see [the plates],” Mr. Gray said as he departed City Hall to march in the parade. “We hope it’s the beginning.”
But hopes for a gradual march toward full voting rights or even D.C. statehood will have to fight for attention among Mr. Obama’s crowded agenda, which includes immigration reform, gun control and restoring the nation’s fiscal footing in the face of a divided Congress.
“I think he has some bigger fish to fry at this point, but he’s been a man of his word so far,” inauguration attendee Jermaine Somerset, of Springfield, Va., said of Mr. Obama’s intentions to help the District.
Mr. Somerset’s fiancee from Atlanta, Brenessa Matthews, said voting rights is something that D.C. residents “need to have.”
“It’s kind of unbelievable to us,” Ms. Matthews said, referring to her fellow Georgians.
Mr. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama rolled by City Hall in their limousine, but city officials and their guests had no chance to interact with the leader of the free world from behind the glass of their heated reviewing stand. Mr. Obama sat on the farther side of the limo while Mrs. Obama offered enthusiastic waves and two thumbs up to the cheering crowd in front of the seat of D.C. government, formally known as the John A. Wilson Building.
For his first inauguration, Mr. Obama disappointed local leaders by opting against the “taxation” tags. Although they consider Mr. Obama a natural ally, leaders in the heavily Democratic city have been disappointed by the president’s lack of support for their efforts to increase home rule, particularly when his party held a majority in both chambers of Congress at the start of his first term.
Mr. Obama forcefully referenced gay rights, immigration reform and climate change in his inaugural speech, yet did not provide the shout-out to the District for which some had hoped.
“It would’ve been nice,” Mr. Gray said, noting that the State of the Union Address next month will give Mr. Obama a second chance to mention the city’s fight for self-determination.
In front of City Hall, Mr. Gray and city lawmakers posted a message for the president on its reviewing stand that reads, “A More Perfect Union Must Include Full Democracy in D.C.” They also flew a version of the city’s red-and-white flag that, once again, reads “Taxation Without Representation.”
The motto has been adopted in recent years by the tea party as a way to evoke the nation’s founding principles, yet common ground between the grass-roots movement and the city ends there.
Conservative factions in Congress have thwarted attempts by D.C. leaders to gain full command of local affairs — despite Republicans’ preference for state control instead of federal intrusion — since the Constitution provided Congress with legislative authority over the capital city and the document calls for representatives from “the states.” Objectors to D.C. voting rights also point to the need to protect the seat of federal government from the states, and that any representative from the District would be a Democrat-controlled seat that dilutes Republican control.
Federal lawmakers have suggested that the bulk of the District may have to “retrocede” to Maryland, after carving out an enclave of important federal buildings, to have a shot at full voting rights.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s representative in Congress, can introduce legislation and weigh in on bills in the House, but she has no voting power. Legislative efforts to give the District a vote in Congress or divorce its local spending from federal appropriations have been sunk by legislative “riders” that would alter the city’s strict gun laws or liberal abortion regulations.
Visitors who waited for the parade along Pennsylvania Avenue sympathized with D.C. residents, who have no voice on Capitol Hill while living in its shadow. They also gave Mr. Obama high marks for making a statement with his license plates.
“I like it,” Dave Limburg, of Greensboro, N.C., said emphatically, although he did not have a “strong opinion” on whether D.C. residents deserve a vote in Congress.
John Bennett and Barbara Robinson brought cadets from a school in Winter Spring, Fla., to march in the parade. Although they do not live anywhere near the District, it was easy for them to see how Americans could end up without a vote in Congress.
“Forty percent of my students are Puerto Rican,” Mr. Bennett said. “So they’re kind of in the same boat.”