WASHINGTON – Barack Hussein Obama took his place as the 44th president of the United States under a bright January sky on Tuesday, defining the problems the nation faces in unsparing terms and exhorting Americans to respond by taking greater responsibility for themselves, the country and the world.
Standing on the West Front of the Capitol as the first African-American sworn in as president, Obama celebrated that historic achievement, noting that “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.”
But the heart of Obama’s first address to the nation as its president was rejection of the policies and values of his immediate predecessors and a somber call for the return of what he called traditional American virtues of hard work, fair play, tolerance and sacrifice for the common good.
In moments of crisis, “America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebearers and true to our founding documents,” Obama said.
“So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.”
Evoking the names and values of the Founding Fathers is commonplace in presidential speeches, but in Obama’s case the device seemed intended to make a larger point:
The change he hopes to bring about will require even his supporters to accept things they don’t want to accept, work with opponents they’ve long demonized, and break long-ingrained lifestyles.
Americans must adopt a new, more self-denying way of life with little room for “those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame,” he said.
In a passage that echoed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural speech, Obama said, “Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished.
“But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
As Obama spoke to the country for the first time as president, the world beyond Washington was filling in details of the hardships that he alluded to in his inaugural address.
Even as he finished the oath of office, the crisis in the financial services industry sent banking stocks plummeting, and the Dow Jones industrial average turned in its worst Inauguration Day performance in its century-plus history, losing 4 percent of its value.
The new president offered few details of the path to prosperity beyond calling for shared sacrifice and cautioning that finding a fix will not be easy. Rather, he spent a surprising amount of time drawing connections between today’s problems and failed political leaders who he said had become consumed with “protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions.”
It was a rebuke of the highly partisan wars of recent decades that handicapped Washington, and it was delivered even as his predecessors, including Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, joined him atop the platform on the Capitol steps.
“In the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things,” Obama said, seeming to belittle what had come before him as frivolous. He called for a “new era of responsibility,” implying irresponsibility on the part of current political leaders.
If the speech was exceptionally somber and included relatively few lines designed to draw roars of approval from the enormous crowd, the day nonetheless resounded with jubilation.
More than 1 million people flocked to the National Mall to take part in the event, spilling outward from the gleaming white Capitol steps toward the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial more than a mile away.
Choirs sang. The world’s finest musicians – including classical violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, along with soul singer Aretha Franklin – performed. High school bands paraded. And tears streamed down faces, weathered and smooth alike, here and around the globe, as the son of a white American and a black African immigrant ascended to his place in history.
People listened, mesmerized as the speech rolled across the mall from a sound system that took two or three seconds to get to the farthest reaches of the crowd.
The echo meant that the field was never quiet, even when Obama paused, as though the words of the day couldn’t be contained in a single moment or place.
As is traditional, former President Bush and former first lady Laura Bush were whisked away by helicopter immediately after the inaugural ceremony and headed for their home state of Texas after a private farewell to staff at nearby Andrews Air Force Base.
And almost at once, the wheels of the new administration began to turn.
In the afternoon, new White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, as expected, put a hold on all regulations the Bush administration had been drafting, pending a review by the new team. Obama is expected to begin issuing his own administrative measures later this week.
Obama made the appointment of his Cabinet his first official act, and the Senate approved several members before the day was over, though Senate Republicans delayed others.
The finality of the transfer of power was signaled in small ways as well as large. A picture of Bush vanished from the White House Web site shortly after noon; Obama’s portrait appeared in its place.
That Obama was taking office in challenging times, both domestic and foreign, he was quick to acknowledge, including an economic crisis as ominous as any since Roosevelt moved into the White House amid the Great Depression.
“Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence 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.”
The way out of the domestic morass, Obama said, will require a more active role for government.
Obama said, “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.”
On foreign policy, Obama vowed to outlast and ultimately defeat terrorists, but he also went out of his way to extend his hand to the Muslim world.
He also declared that the United States would once more play the role of world leader. “We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet.
“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.”
Obama takes office with big advantages, such as the wide Democratic majority in Congress, the ability to call upon his grass-roots political network and e-mail list of 13 million, and high approval ratings. A new Gallup Poll showed that nearly three-fourths of Americans feel optimistic about his presidency.
His enormous achievement – becoming the country’s first black president – adds to a sense that, as the Rev. Rick Warren put it in his invocation Tuesday, the Obama administration marks a “hinge point in history.”
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