Our nation’s capital will survive the financial meltdown, the deepening recession and the plethora of foreign crises from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Whether Washington will survive Tuesday’s inauguration, however, is an open question.

Rarely has a city that cockily considers itself the center of the political universe been seized by such a powerful combination of giddiness and anxiety. Barack Obama will be, after all, the 44th president of the United States; it’s not as if we haven’t gone through this drill before. But this inauguration seems to have been amplified by a feedback loop of historical importance, security paranoia and sheer numerical overload — a combination that has strained Washington’s ability to cope.

I knew things were getting bad a few weeks ago when I ran into D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and his greeting was not to wish me a good morning or ask how I was doing, but rather: “You got anyplace I can park some tour buses?”

Things got much worse with the announcement that all the bridges across the Potomac River between the city and its Virginia suburbs will be closed to personal vehicles on Inauguration Day. For anyone who needs to cross those bridges to get into town — and this includes just about anyone arriving from points south — that means a whole new dimension of angst.

Not that it’s going to be easy to get downtown Tuesday from any direction, given the anticipated volume of traffic and the fact that so many streets will be blocked off. Few options are left for those who have a professional duty to be present. I know of a lucky few Washington-based journalists whose news organizations have secured close-in hotel rooms for Monday night. Many others plan to sleep in their offices, which means they will perform their role as witnesses to history in an unusually rumpled state.

Days early, gridlock has already begun to close its grip on Washington’s federal core — a 10-minute crosstown trip can take two or three times as long as it should. But traffic is far from the only thing the city has to be anxious about. Obama’s inauguration is expected to draw record crowds from around the nation, and many of those visitors will be staying with friends and relatives. Local hosts are forced to keep up with the stream of announcements about logistics — street closings, subway hours, late-breaking restrictions — in order to decide how best to get their guests from point A to point B and back again, assuming that point B can be reached at all.

The biggest single anxiety for locals and visitors alike, though, may be figuring out how to actually attend anything. That’s ironic, because this should be the least of anyone’s worries.

For the main event — the swearing-in at the Capitol — there are just 240,000 tickets; members of Congress, each of whom got an allotment of tickets to distribute, reported a flood of demand. For VIPs who will have seats close to the action, and I’m talking Oprah here, having a ticket will mean something. But those on the outer fringe of the ticketed area are unlikely to see much more than the ticketed masses on the Mall.

The official inaugural balls? Anyone who has gone to the trouble of securing a ticket, buying a new outfit and running the gantlet of traffic and security barriers will surely have a good time, if only to justify the expenditure of effort. The new president and first lady will doubtless be radiant. But those who give the inaugural balls a pass can take comfort in the fact that these affairs are almost never what a reasonable person would technically describe as fun.

Then again, fun isn’t really the point. There’s a reason why Washington is so tied in knots over this particular inauguration, a reason why so many people will brave the elements and defy the furies to see the advent of this new presidency.

The Obama administration begins at a moment of crisis, but also, perhaps, of opportunity. The nation has elected its first African-American president. The government he will head has been forced to take more of a role in the economic life of the nation than at any time since World War II. If ever there was a time to send a new administration to work with the nation’s best wishes, that time is now. This inauguration really does matter more than most.

So let the party begin. Somehow, we’ll make it to Wednesday. Won’t we?

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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