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Obama’s inauguration ushers in era of change

Crowds, excitement build as U.S. begins next chapter

WASHINGTON – America changes course today.

Barack Obama, of Illinois, will take office as the nation’s 44th president at 9 a.m. PST in a simple yet elegant ceremony that will mark a peaceful transfer of power. He does so at a time of unusual peril, with a sputtering economy at home and U.S. troops still in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The inauguration of the youthful and popular new president – and the departure of the unpopular incumbent, George W. Bush – will set off a potentially dramatic shift in direction on policies, from the wars abroad to the role of the federal government at home, and a change in tone, with the rise of a new generation more prone to problem-solving than to ideological conflict.

At the center of it all is the 47-year-old son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas who’ll become the first African-American to reach the nation’s highest office.

Thousands of people poured onto the National Mall on Monday, spreading a festive mood across the capital city among those eagerly anticipating not only the swearing-in ceremony and the inaugural parade but also the start of a new era. They were the vanguard of what’s likely to be a million-plus throng there today. Estimates of how many people are flocking to Washington run to 3 million.

“I had to come,” said Teresa Ward, 41, who drove about 13 hours from Jonesboro, Ark.

“Being here, saying I was here, I’ll be able to tell my children and grandchildren,” said Lydia Clark, 25, a multiracial woman from West Bend, Wis. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to tell them this is when change first occurred, and hopefully there will be many more minority presidents to come.”

Obama himself spent his last day as a private citizen Monday in symbolic gestures meant to highlight the deeds of others, including a visit with wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, working with volunteers at a Washington shelter for homeless teens and attending a dinner honoring his Republican rival for the presidency, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

At the Monday evening dinner, Obama lauded McCain for his war record and political independence, saying he hoped their ability to set aside the heated rhetoric of the campaign would help set a new tone.

“Each of us in public life has a responsibility to usher in a new season of cooperation built on those things we hold in common,” Obama said. “Not as Democrats. Not as Republicans. But as Americans.”

“We can accomplish anything,” Obama said earlier Monday at the homeless shelter, a visit meant to show support for volunteer work on the day set aside to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“One of the goals of my administration will be to make sure that we have a government that’s more responsive and more effective and more efficient at helping families. But don’t underestimate the power for people to pull together and to accomplish amazing things. …

“Given the crisis that we’re in and the hardships that so many people are going through, we can’t allow any idle hands. Everybody’s got to be involved. Everybody’s going to have to pitch in, and I think the American people are ready for that.”

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