Meet the new neighbours at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

The US president, George W Bush, hosted Barack Obama, the president-elect, and his wife Michelle, at the White House this week.

The US president-elect, Barack Obama, is led by the US president George W Bush, right, through the Colonnade during a welcome ceremony at the White House in Washington, DC, Nov 11 2008.
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It was the top item on a local radio news broadcast one afternoon this week. A well-regarded public elementary school, in a nice part of Washington DC, had just received a call from someone asking whether it might be able to accept in January two new students, girls aged 10 and seven, even though they did not live in the school catchment area. The caller declined to give his name. But he did provide an address: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

That address, of course, belongs to the White House - where young Malia and Sasha Obama will indeed be taking up residence in about eight weeks' time, and in need of a decent school. The call may have been a hoax, and Michelle Obama, their mother, was spotted the same day prospecting two smart private schools much closer to their new home. Stunt or not, the story is an illustration of how abuzz the US capital is with Barack Obama - the country's first African-American president - coming to town.

The scouting visit on Monday, when George and Laura Bush welcomed the Obamas in to inspect their new home for the next four (or eight) years was a sensation in its own right. Thousands of people jammed outside the railings of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, unaware that they had little chance of glimpsing the president-elect and his wife, who arrived in their tinted-window limousine at the more discreet south-west entrance for VIPs.

Outside in the street, meanwhile, workmen were already starting to put up the VIP viewing stands for January's Inauguration Day parade. Every presidential inauguration sees the world's most powerful republic at its most monarchical. They are coronations American-style, where pomp meets populism, where hucksterism and social climbing come together as one. But this inauguration is special. For one thing there will not have been a real one for eight years, when George W Bush was first elected. And that inauguration was low key, what with a transition shortened by the 2000 Florida recount, and Mr Bush's aversion to going to bed later than 9.30pm. Not since the gifted, but wayward, Bill Clinton came on the scene has there been a comparable pre-inaugural buzz.

But beside Mr Obama, even Mr Clinton's charisma pales. Back in 1993 moreover, there was none of today's raw yearning for the change that the advent of any new president symbolises. America's dire economic straits only heighten the anticipation of an event that, for 24 hours at least, will take minds off plant shutdowns and home foreclosures, tumbling markets and job losses. For almost everyone, the hiatus of the transition cannot pass soon enough. The old is dead. Bring on the new - and the sooner the better.

In Washington, at least, transition does not only mean lost jobs (though thousands will be). It also means new jobs, and the rush is under way. Not just for the top slots at the state department, the Pentagon and the treasury, about which the media speculate every day, but for hundreds of lesser posts as well. The official "The United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions", aka "The Plum Book", lists 9,000 jobs subject to presidential appointment, "assigned on a non-competitive basis".

Of these, 1,000 require Senate approval. Even the Plum Book, though, tells only part of the story. Thousands of other jobs open up when the White House changes hands. They are mainly for the young, the ambitious and the star-struck. Most of them are menial jobs in obscure policy offices. But for many an Obama campaign worker, who has toiled in the field for months, often for little or no pay, they are a foothold on the bottom rung of a ladder that may lead ? who knows where?

Meanwhile, the celebrated revolving door is spinning full speed. Some of the Bush crowd will be heading home, but others are making beelines for high-paying Republican lobbying firms and conservative thinktanks in Washington. For Democrats the stampede is in the opposite direction. A president may not have his full team approved by Congress (and vetted by the FBI) for months or longer. Some transitions are not properly completed much before the midterm elections roll around after two years. But for a majority of ordinary Americans, this one will end in an explosion of history when Mr Obama takes the oath of office on Jan 20 2009.

That is why applications for the 240,000 free tickets for the event already run into millions. That is why scalpers are asking US$1,500 (Dh5,520) for a good seat at the parade. And that is why an inquiry at an elementary school in north-west Washington has a normally placid neighbourhood beside itself with excitement. * The National