By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 19, 2009
As a growing celebratory spirit began to consume the nation's capital, President-elect Barack Obama stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial yesterday and declared a "celebration of American renewal" two days ahead of his swearing-in.
"Behind me, watching over the union he saved, sits the man who in so many ways made this day possible," Obama said, in front of the marble statue of President Abraham Lincoln.
Obama's advisers also began to give a taste of the inaugural address that he will deliver at the other end of the Mall tomorrow -- saying it will emphasize the themes of responsibility and restoring public confidence.
Obama touched on that subject yesterday, saying that what gave him great optimism was the "Americans of every race and region and station who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there."
In a series of appearances that culminated in the concert at the Lincoln Memorial, Obama ventured across a city transformed into a miles-long block party, with banners strung across storefronts and tourists covered in Obama gear.
Earlier in the day, he and Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. visited Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Obama and his family later attended a service at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church.
As Obama rode from place to place in his new armored Cadillac -- with the license plate "44" -- his aides made television appearances to preview his tightly held speech and to remind the public of his immediate goals upon taking over the presidency tomorrow. Robert Gibbs, the incoming White House press secretary, said Obama had written the speech himself last weekend and was relieved to have the bulk of it completed.
Obama will talk about restoring a sense of responsibility in the country, Gibbs said, conveying his belief that "we need more responsibility and accountability, certainly, in the way our government acts."
"We have to have it, certainly, within many of our financial institutions that sort of have gotten us to where we are in this economic crisis today," Gibbs said on "Fox News Sunday." "Obviously, the American people are going to have to give some."
Rahm Emanuel, the incoming chief of staff, said the "culture of responsibility" would be sought for American leaders as well as the population at large. "We need that culture of responsibility, not just to be asked of the American people, but its leaders must also lead by example," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Obama takes office facing giant challenges, including a severe economic downturn and two wars, and his speech is expected to take those hardships into account.
Like President John F. Kennedy, who summoned citizens to think about what they could contribute to the nation, Obama hopes to turn some of the focus back onto the electorate, as he did with his grass-roots-driven presidential campaign. In that sense, Obama will also revive a theme that belonged to outgoing President Bush, who in his 2000 campaign talked about ushering in a "responsibility era."
Aides who have seen parts of Obama's speech said they expect it to meet or surpass expectations of a president-elect known for his soaring oratory.
But Obama and his aides are working to play down expectations about how much he can accomplish in his first days in office.
Obama sought to strike a balance yesterday between his trademark optimism and the challenges he faces.
"In the course of our history, only a handful of generations have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now. Our nation is at war. Our economy is in crisis. Millions of Americans are losing their jobs and their homes. . . . And most of all, they are anxious and uncertain about the future -- about whether this generation of Americans will be able to pass on what's best about this country to our children and their children," Obama said. "I won't pretend that meeting any one of these challenges will be easy. . . . despite all of this -- despite the enormity of the task that lies ahead -- I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure -- that it will prevail -- that the dream of our founders will live on in our time."
In his television appearance, Gibbs said the economy "is likely to get worse before it gets better," with a recession perhaps extending past Obama's first year as president.
David Axelrod, a senior adviser, said that poll results -- including a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showing widespread support for Obama -- are good news for the new administration but do not suggest a simple fix.
"I think the public is rooting for us, and more importantly, rooting for the country," Axelrod said on ABC's "This Week." "We know -- think everybody knows we have big problems. I think the striking thing about your poll and all of the polling I've seen is this combination of optimism and realism."
In keeping with his inaugural address theme, Obama is hosting a national day of service today, and former campaign manager David Plouffe yesterday sent out an e-mail urging citizens to participate. "Monday is not only the eve of an inauguration that brings all of us so much hope, it's also Martin Luther King Jr. Day -- when we recognize the power of one man to bring about change by serving his country," Plouffe wrote.
Obama, whose family has moved into Blair House across from the White House, appeared with donors on the Mall before attending the "We Are One" concert.
Biden and his wife, Jill, joined the Obamas for yesterday's events. Under a cold, gray sky at the Lincoln Memorial, Biden turned somber as he paid tribute to America's workers, saying they deserved the "thanks of a grateful nation."
"Work is more than a paycheck. It's about dignity. It's about respect. It's about whether you can look your child in the eye and say, 'Honey it is going to be all right,' " Biden said.