Key Points:

With a week to go before Barack Obama is sworn in, the hype is unstoppable. In the bus queues and at the hairdressers across the country, on talk radio and blogs, the only subject worth discussing is next Wednesday's inauguration.

In Fort Wayne, Indiana, Ryan Hadley was busy applying Obama tattoos on the waistlines of two teenage girls. Other customers wanted them on their legs, arms and waistlines.

"The smallest costs US$50 [$90] and one the size of a softball will set you back US$600."

From this weekend, more than four million people will pour into Washington, DC, hoping for a glimpse of the president during his inauguration. They will all have to squeeze on to an expanse of grass between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial known as The Mall, in weather expected to be freezing but dry.

Only a small number of those waiting for hours will manage to clap eyes on President Obama as his armour-plated limousine rolls by. Most will have to make do with huge television monitors.

Excitement is pulsing through the country. A gold-embossed invitation dropped through millions of letter-boxes this week. It said the "the presidential Inauguration Committee requests the honour of your presence to attend and participate in the inauguration", followed by the words Barack H. Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr. Unfortunately it was simply a commemorative keepsake, as worthless as any other junk mail.

With the country in deep recession, about the only bright spot on the retail horizon are the profits being made from marketing Obama's image. A number of the empty holes in shopping centres have been transformed into Obama memorabilia shops.

At Ronald Reagan Airport just outside Washington, the shelves in a special presidential shop are heaving with Obama tat.

Even the Inauguration Committee has opened a shop to profit from the excitement of the history-making ceremony. Yesterday it was offering street artist Shepard Fairey's posters of Obama for US$20 "or two for US$35".

When top Washington lawyer Gregory Craig was offered the job of White House counsel for the President-elect he had reason to assume he would be dealing with such key issues as conflicts of interest and the legal limits of interrogation in Guantanamo.

Instead he is busy trying to halt the unlicensed commercial exploitation of his client's image.

Federal law prohibits the improper use of the "likeness of the great seal of the United States". As keeper of the official presidential seal, it is Craig's job to ensure it is not used on hoodies, bottle-openers or any other item.

As of Obama's swearing in, letters will be sent out from Craig's team warning retailers selling Obama-themed items to knock it off.

The greatest excitement seems to be among the capital's black community, where many private parties are being planned. "We're twice as busy as we were four years ago," said Eric Michael, a caterer. "There were plenty of splashy black-tie affairs for the Clinton and Bush inaugurals, but no one's doing that this time around."

The parties are being toned down because the incoming Obama Administration is serious about changing the way lobbyists conduct business. New ethics rules mean that knives and forks, as well as plates wider than 15cm, are banned for any party for politicians or government officials.

The lobbyists have quickly found a way round the new rules though, with one planning a party for new members of Congress at Charlie Palmer Steak. They will be offered chopsticks to eat crab fritters with caviar, truffled beer tartare and lobster spring rolls.

The unofficial parties taking place all over town are beyond the control of the Obama team and expected to be much less restrained. And for those visitors without accommodation, the bars will be staying open until 5am for four nights running.

- INDEPENDENT