In Washington, Excitement for Barack Obama Mostly Eclipses Pettiness

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The aura around Barack Obama seemed almost supernatural.

The Inauguration Day weather forecast had called for mostly cloudy skies, but as noon approached, the clouds vanished, leaving behind a blue sky and a low winter sun reflecting off the new president's forehead. Improbably, a lone, majestic bird -- an eagle? -- glided lazily overhead.

At the West Front of the Capitol, even grizzled senators and jaded reporters were snapping photos of one another and turning to gape at the crowd on the Mall, well over 1 million people stretching all the way to the Lincoln Memorial. The mass of humanity sparkled with thousands of camera flashes, shimmered with tens of thousands of waving flags and echoed with a chant of "Oh-bah-mah!"

Even the chief justice seemed to be awed, if not unnerved; he forgot his lines when the time came to swear in the 44th president.

"I, Barack Hussein Obama," John Roberts began.

"I, Barack . . ."

Roberts cut him off: "Do solemnly swear," he said.

After finally getting through the first line, the chief justice then botched the second. "That I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully," he said, putting "faithfully" in the wrong place and using "to" instead of "of." Obama started to repeat the line, then paused to allow Roberts a do-over. By then the whole thing had become so muddled that Obama wound up repeating Roberts's initial error.

Such is the pressure of being confronted with living history.

The new president himself, in his inaugural address, called it "a moment that will define a generation" -- and somehow this did not seem to be an idle boast. The nation has put enormous hopes in this one man, believing that this 47-year-old can end the misery at home, the fighting abroad and what Obama called the intangible "sapping of confidence across our land, a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable."

But how to resolve this hopelessness? Here Obama spoke of another intangible, the "change" he has promised. "In the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things," he said. "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply."

Whether he can make that happen could well define whether Obama can arrest American decline, or whether his lofty calls for renewal are, as Hillary Rodham Clinton memorably put it during the campaign, "just words." Some early indications from his first day on the job were not promising. About two hours before Obama's swearing-in, the Senate majority leader's office announced that Clinton could not be confirmed as secretary of state yesterday because a single lawmaker -- Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) -- had blocked a vote.

Bitterness among Obama's supporters was also in evidence. When George Bush and Dick Cheney were announced for the final time as president and vice president, thousands on the Mall sang: "Na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey hey hey, goodbye." When Bush's helicopter took off from the Capitol's East Front to take him to Andrews Air Force Base for his flight to Texas, shouts from the ground followed him: "Go home!"

Bush could be seen wearing a sour look as Obama, during his address, spoke of "greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age."

But excitement eclipsed the usual pettiness yesterday.

On the inaugural platform, senators were tourists for a day. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) used an instant camera to take shots. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) tried out his camera phone. And Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), wearing a fedora and toting a 35mm camera, was so busy photographing the proceedings that he seemed to think he was Annie Leibovitz (who, incidentally, was shooting the event with the news photographers).

Other lawmakers waved to family members in the crowd. House Democrats struck up a cheer of "Rahm-bo" for White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, their former colleague.

In the front rows below the platform, the stars found their seats: Sean "Diddy" Combs, Denzel Washington, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Tyne Daly, Oprah, even Reggie Jackson -- the other No. 44. The members of the Senate were announced, to weak applause. The justices were announced, to no applause. Presidential daughters Malia and Sasha were announced to loud applause and a standing ovation from Beyoncé. When Obama was announced, the cheer rolled west along the Mall like receding thunder.

Behind the new president hung the 13- and 21-star flags, both of which flew during the era of slavery. The military band played "Amazing Grace." Inaugural Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, who spoke a bit too long, heralded "the moment when the dream that once echoed across history from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial finally reached the walls of the White House." The Rev. Rick Warren, who spoke much too long in his opening prayer, echoed the theme again, celebrating "a hinge-point of history with the inauguration of our first African American president of the United States."

Their long-windedness meant that at noon, when Obama became president, Yo-Yo Ma was performing on his cello; Obama took his oath of office four minutes later, after somebody brought out a box for his 7-year-old daughter to stand on. "That's for you," he said with a chuckle.

But there was no laughter when Obama spoke of the nation's long list of woes. "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America," he said. "For everywhere we look, there is work to be done."

Indeed, Obama didn't have to look far for problems. A celebratory lunch in the Capitol's Statuary Hall became a somber affair when Sen. Ted Kennedy, the legislative point man for Obama's health-care plan, was wheeled out suffering from a seizure.

Obama hurried to Kennedy's side and left the room with him. "This is a joyous time," the new president said when he returned, "but it's also a sobering time."

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