Archive for Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama takes office

January 20, 2009

— Barack Hussein Obama became the nation’s 44th president Tuesday, telling a crowd that stretched from the steps of the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, and a watching nation, that “we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America.”

The ascent of the country’s first African American president, and the peaceful transfer of power in tumultuous times both at home and abroad, drew an enormous mass of well-wishers and witnesses to history. An early estimate from a senior security official put the number of people on the Mall at 2 million.

Obama outlined the challenges facing the country: a collapsing economy, wars on two fronts, a lack of confidence in government and enemies who hate the very way of American life.

They can be addressed, he said, with “a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

“This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.”

The birth of a new administration always marks a burst of American excitement and anticipation, and in Obama’s case, a surge of optimism in a country beset by troubles. But perhaps no inauguration in recent times has matched the anticipation attending the senator from Illinois, who made “hope” and “change” the bywords of his campaign.

Obama was accompanied to the West Front of the Capitol by President George W. Bush and sworn in by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Obama took the oath by stating his full name, the one he said opponents once used to try to make him seem apart from mainstream America.

It was the first time the chief justice administered the oath — indeed, the first time any chief justice had sworn in a man who voted against his confirmation — and both men stumbled over the words. But the sight of the two youthful leaders — Roberts, 53, the second-youngest chief justice, and Obama, 47, the fourth-youngest man elected president — underscored the theme of generational change.

So did the presence of the youthful Michelle Obama and the couple’s two grade-school daughters, Malia and Sasha, dressed in candy tones of blue and pink.

Continuity was marked by the swearing-in of former Delaware senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. as vice president, the oath administered by 88-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens, a Republican appointee who is now the leader of the court’s liberal contingent and the second-oldest man to serve on the court.

Obama laid his hand on the burgundy-velvet-covered Bible that was used by Abraham Lincoln in 1861, and history again trembled. The chief justice that day was Marylander Roger Brooke Taney, the author of the Dred Scott decision that said blacks could never be citizens. The Constitution, Taney said, recognized blacks as “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations.”

Obama called it the “meaning of our liberty and our creed” that those days are no more: “Why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

It was his most overt reference to the historical significance of his achievement.

History, history: the word was on the lips of nearly everyone who rode buses through the night or crowded Metro platforms in pre-dawn darkness or walked through crowded streets just to get to a point where, with luck, the new president would be a speck on the horizon.

Ellamae Simmons, 90, was hoisted out of her wheelchair by two young family members, who carried her down the escalator at the Farragut North Metro station at 6:30 a.m. The first train to arrive was too crowded for the wheelchair, but Simmons, a retired doctor who flew in from San Francisco on Saturday, did not complain about waiting for a later train.

“I would have gone across the water to see Mr. Obama,” Simmons said as she boarded.

The day marked the end of an extraordinary journey to the White House. Obama becomes perhaps the country’s most improbable president, the son of a Kenyan scholar and a white Kansas mother, raised in the exotic climes of Hawaii and Indonesia and bearing what he describes as a “funny name.”

Just five years ago, he was a middle-of-the-pack Illinois state senator in Springfield, and now fills the nation’s highest office even before finishing his first term in the United States Senate.

But his candidacy inspired young voters and an unprecedented outpouring of African American voters, and his motivational message drew independents and disaffected voters of both parties.

Bishop T.D. Jakes drew from the campaign for his sermon at the morning church service at St. John’s Episcopal Church, where the Obamas joined Biden and his wife, Jill Biden.

“The problems are mighty and the solutions are not simple and everywhere you turn there will be a critic waiting to attack every decision that you make,” Jakes said. Then came a message borne of inspiration and campaign rhetoric: “But you are all fired up, sir, and you are ready to go. And this nation goes with you. God goes with you.”

The Obamas arrived at the White House at 9:52 a.m., and were greeted three minutes later by the Bushes. Michele Obama gave Laura Bush a white package tied with red ribbon, and the two couples embraced and posed for photographers. Meeting for coffee is a tradition for the outgoing and incoming presidents before making the trip to Capitol Hill.

The Rev. Rick Warren, who delivered the invocation at the inaugural ceremony, said, “We celebrate a hinge point in history,” and he prayed for God to give Obama “the wisdom to lead us with humility, the courage to lead us with integrity, the compassion to lead us with generosity.”

Obama had begun the process for his much-anticipated inaugural speech shortly before Thanksgiving, laying out the broad outlines of what he hoped to say, senior transition officials said. In particular, Obama told his speechwriters he wanted to do what some of the best inaugural speeches in history have done: Explain to the American people “the moment that we find ourselves in right now,” one official said.

At least two drafts and many weeks later, the speechwriting team turned over the work to the president-elect himself. Last weekend, Obama retreated to a suite at the Hay-Adams Hotel and wrote through the draft, producing a version that advisers said reflects mostly his own thinking and writing.

The speech, which ran slightly less than 20 minutes, contained a theme of inclusion and conciliation, both at home and abroad.

“Our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness,” Obama said. “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

And the new president issued a tough warning to America’s enemies: “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

Obama takes office with enormous popularity and impressive expressions of goodwill from the American people — as well as high expectations.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that more than seven in 10 said Obama has a mandate to work for major new social and economic programs; fewer than half thought so of President George W. Bush at the start of his first term.

Most, 52 percent, have high expectations for the Obama presidency, as nearly three-quarters (72) are confident his economic program will improve the nation’s struggling economy.

Staff writers Maria Glod, Daniel de Vise, Keith Alexander, Jon Cohen, Eli Saslow and Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.

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