By Michael D. Shear and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Barack Hussein Obama took the oath of office as the nation's first African American president yesterday, summoning a vast crowd and a watching nation to the task of reviving a country in crisis.
The inauguration of the 44th president, who made "hope" and "change" the bywords of his improbable campaign, took place amid a building air of anticipation in Washington. A city that had braced for record-breaking attendance swelled with visitors who would, at least briefly, nearly double its population. Before dawn yesterday, more than 1 million people began streaming into the city to bear witness to the event, brushing aside the frigid temperatures and travel problems.
As he spoke, Obama looked out at a sea of admirers, some of whom had camped out overnight in tents or made long treks by bus and Metro. By the end of the day, those spectators lined the route of Obama's procession to the White House, chanting his name and straining for a glimpse of the new president.
Obama made only glancing references to the racial barrier that had fallen with his historic ascent. Instead, in an 18 1/2 -minute speech notable for its somber tone as much as its soaring rhetoric, he outlined the challenges of what he called "this winter of our hardship": a collapsing economy, wars on two fronts, a lack of confidence in government and enemies eager to destroy the American way of life.
"We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America," Obama told the throng, which stretched from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial.
Obama was accompanied to the West Front of the Capitol by President Bush. At the stroke of noon, the man who had served not even a full term in the U.S. Senate became the nation's commander in chief, and at 12:04 p.m., he was sworn in by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
Obama took the oath by stating his full given name, which he had once said opponents had used to try to set him apart from mainstream America.
It was the first time Roberts had administered the oath -- and the first time any chief justice had sworn in a president 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 Michelle Obama, 45, and the couple's two daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, dressed in candy-colored tones of blue and pink.
Continuity was marked by the swearing-in of former senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), 66, as vice president, the oath administered by 88-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens.
Obama laid his hand on the burgundy-velvet-covered Bible that Abraham Lincoln used for his inauguration in 1861, and history again trembled. The chief justice that day was Marylander Roger B. Taney, who wrote the Dred Scott decision that said blacks could never be citizens. The Constitution, he said, recognized blacks as "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations."
In his address, Obama struck an especially stern note on the country's economic distress, saying there had been a "collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age," leading to dire declines in the housing and job markets, the education system, and health care. He called for "a new era of responsibility" but devoted even more attention to a nation that has seen its collective morale shaken by wars abroad and an economic downturn at home.
"These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land -- a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights," Obama said. "Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met."
His voice echoing across the Mall, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the 1963 March on Washington, Obama saluted the progress the nation has made in healing racial division. It was, he said, "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. At another point in the 2,400-word address, Obama made an allusion to slavery, recalling the sacrifices of ancestors who "endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth." Yet he repeatedly broadened the point to reflect the entire American experience, saying similar sacrifices had been made from the Revolution to the settlement of the West to the Vietnam War. And the theme of diversity coursed through his remarks.
"We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness," Obama said. "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. 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."
The word "history" was on the lips of nearly everyone who rode buses through the night or crowded Metro platforms in pre-dawn darkness or walked through packed streets just to get to a point where, with luck, the new president would be a speck on the horizon. When the Obamas emerged from their presidential limousine to walk along Pennsylvania Avenue during the parade just after 4 p.m., the energized crowd exploded with shrieks and cheers. The new first couple, holding hands, walked and waved for blocks. They got back into the car and slowly rolled several more blocks before getting out to walk again near 15th Street, prompting another collective outburst.
Still, the day was punctured by sobering moments. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose brain tumor was diagnosed last year, collapsed during the inaugural luncheon honoring Obama in the Capitol and was taken away by ambulance. On Wall Street, stocks tumbled over the course of the afternoon. The Secret Service reported monitoring a steady stream of security threats.
In the Senate, seven members of Obama's Cabinet were confirmed yesterday. But a vote to confirm Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state was delayed by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who demanded a roll-call vote on her nomination. That vote is scheduled for today, and Clinton is expected to win confirmation with broad bipartisan support.
Obama is planning to meet with his national security and economic teams today. A brutal day on Wall Street yesterday underlined the gravity of the challenges he faces, as fresh doubts about the health of the country's banks triggered sharp losses. The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index plunged more than 5 percent, while the Dow Jones industrial average shed 4 percent.
Late yesterday, more than 15 Obama officials made their way into the White House to get to work, answering phones, plugging in computers and trying to turn up the thermostat. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel signed an executive order to stop all federal agencies from proceeding with pending regulations until the administration can review them.
Obama began the day with familiar inaugural rituals: He and his family attended St. John's Episcopal Church before heading to the White House for tea with Bush and the outgoing first lady, Laura Bush. The two families rode to the Capitol in successive armored vehicles, accompanied by outgoing Vice President Dick Cheney and Biden and his wife, Jill.
Some in the crowd booed at the sight of Bush, who left office as one of the least popular presidents in U.S. history. When the ceremony ended, the Obamas and Bidens accompanied the Bushes to a helicopter waiting to take them to Andrews Air Force Base for their final official trip, back to Texas. Bush and Obama briefly hugged farewell. The handoff had other grace notes, as Obama thanked Bush for his service to the country and Bush, aides said, left a note for Obama in the top drawer of his desk in the Oval Office.
In keeping with his promise to restore American standing around the world, Obama pledged in his inaugural address to seek a "new way forward" with Muslims based on mutual interest and respect. He spoke directly to allies and rivals around the world -- addressing people "from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born," in Kenya -- and promised friendship to nations and people who seek "peace and dignity." But he warned those who would sow terrorism that the United States, on his watch, will not waver in its self defense.
"Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you," he vowed.
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.