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A Historic Inauguration Draws Throngs To the Mall

President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address Tuesday following his swearing-in ceremony on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Video by washingtonpost.com

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"Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you," he vowed.

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The new president promised that the nation will "begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan."

He admonished wealthy countries that they must not abandon those that are less fortunate.

"We can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect," he said. "For the world has changed, and we must change with it."

Domestically, Obama sought once more to set aside partisan divisions and dismissed critics of his bold and expansive proposals. "Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans," he said. "Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.

Obama continued: "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. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account -- to spend wisely, reform bad habits and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government."

Obama opened his speech by declaring that "44 Americans have now taken the presidential oath," although, in fact, only 43 have done so. Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th president, the only commander in chief to serve two nonconsecutive terms. An Obama official said the president was aware of the fact but thought it would be less confusing to overlook the footnote.

If Obama left the historic nature of the moment largely unspoken, he was perhaps the only one to do so. The Rev. Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California, who gave the invocation, made the achievement a cornerstone of his prayer. "We are so grateful to live in this land, a land of unequal possibility, where the son of an African immigrant can rise to the highest level of our leadership," the controversial pastor said, adding that King was no doubt "shouting in heaven" at the occasion.

In a moment of sharp admonition, the Rev. Joseph Lowery delivered the benediction with a call for greater racial harmony, saying: "Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back; when brown can stick around; . . . when yellow will be mellow; . . . when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) led the ceremony. Aretha Franklin sang "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." A quartet of musicians -- violinist Yitzhak Perlman, cellist Yo Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Gabriela Montero -- played a work by the composer John Williams that drew heavily from the Shaker song "Simple Gifts." For much of the ceremony, the crowds on the Mall fell silent. The poet Elizabeth Alexander read her work.

After an inaugural luncheon of seafood stew, duck breast with cherry chutney, herb-roasted pheasant and sweet potatoes, the Obamas watched the parade along Pennsylvania Avenue. By late afternoon, Obama was bound for the Oval Office, to begin, his advisers said, to work. Obama and his wife were scheduled to attend 10 inaugural balls last night.

At the first of the balls, the Neighborhood Ball, the new first couple basked in the crowd's euphoric response as "Hail to the Chief" announced their arrival. The president, wearing a tuxedo with a white bow tie, and his wife, in a sequined white dress with one strap over her right shoulder, waved and smiled. They two-stepped while Beyoncé sang Etta James's classic tune "At Last."

"Hello, America!" Obama bellowed. "First of all, how good-looking is my wife?"

The crowd loved it (though not everyone loved her dress.) But Obama, ever the organizer, refused to let the moment pass without a quick speech: "We are going to need you, not just today, not just tomorrow, but this year, for the next four years and who knows after that, because together, we are going to change America."

Staff writers Robert Barnes and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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