WASHINGTON — As massive crowds swarmed the National Mall on Tuesday to witness Barack Obama’s inauguration as president, the man at the center of the maelstrom began the day quietly and reverently, at a church service across the street from the White House.
Obama and his family attended a private service at St. John’s Episcopal Church, a tradition for those about to become president. The family of Vice President-elect Joe Biden also attended.
Barack and Michelle Obama waved to bystanders, then entered the church to applause from about 200 people. The choir and congregation began singing the hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past.”
The Rev. Luis Leon welcomed the Obamas and said every president since James Madison has worshipped at the church at least once, “some of them kicking and screaming.”
Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr., of Los Angeles, drew murmurs and chuckles when he blessed the Obamas and asked that “they may finish these two terms in office” stronger than they are now. Obama, of course, would have to win re-election in 2012 to serve a second term.
The Rev. Joel Hunter of Longwood, Fla., offered a blessing to “Barack Hussein Obama.”
The sermon was by prominent Dallas minister T.D. Jakes. Borrowing an Obama campaign slogan, he told the president-elect that he will face many critics, “but you are all fired up, sir, and you’re ready to go.” The nation and God will go with him, too, Jakes said.
The Obamas and Joe and Jill Biden were scheduled to have coffee at the White House with President George W. Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney and their wives. Then they would travel the short distance to the Capitol for Obama’s history-making moment.
Just beyond the White House fence, huge crowds braved freezing temperatures and jostled for positions to see — with the naked eye or on Jumbotron screens — Obama take the oath of office as the 44th president and the first black to hold the title.
On Monday, a relaxed and upbeat Obama prepared for his big day by invoking the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. and lavishing praise on two prominent Republicans in calling for a new spirit of bipartisanship.
After visiting wounded veterans and helping volunteers paint a dorm for homeless teens in Washington, Obama dashed to three black-tie dinners Monday night. One honored Sen. John McCain, the Republican he defeated in November, and another honored Colin Powell, who was secretary of state under Bush.
The third dinner was for Biden, the former Delaware senator who twice sought the presidency himself.
Obama called McCain and Powell American heroes who set standards of patriotism and bipartisanship for all to follow.
He hugged McCain onstage and called for Americans’ help “in making this bipartisan dinner not just an inaugural tradition, but a new way of doing the people’s business in this city.”
Throughout the day, Obama showed no hints of nervousness about becoming president within hours.
“I don’t sweat,” he told volunteers at Sasha Bruce House, a shelter for homeless teens in one of Washington’s poorer neighborhoods. “You ever see me sweat?”
All day, he switched easily from self-deprecation to faux cockiness to calls for action.
“Make sure I do something simple,” he told Sasha Bruce organizers. “Don’t give me plumbing or electrical work.”
As he painted a wall with a roller brush, he quoted King as saying, “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.”
“Right?” he asked the late civil rights leader’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, who was almost overlooked while painting nearby.
“Right,” King assured the president-elect.