Throngs Come to Take Part

Posted January 20, 2009 at 6:50pm

Barack Obama took the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States on Tuesday, becoming the nation’s first black chief executive nearly 144 years after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, and nearly 45 years after Congress guaranteed black Americans the right to vote.

Obama’s swearing-in was the climax of a days-long inaugural celebration that spread across D.C., a majority-black city whose citizens have rarely, if ever, found themselves at the center of “official” Washington’s attention.

Unlike in years past when inaugural festivities were limited to the National Mall and the handful of high-end hotel ballrooms, whole sections of the District became destinations for Obama supporters.

The historic U Street corridor — a six-block section of town that was known as the “Black Broadway” for much of the past century — has been at the epicenter of the five-day party, with musicians such as Moby and the Beastie Boys mingling with thousands of tourists and residents.

Although Obama has not made race a key aspect of his pre-inaugural events, his activities in the days leading up to the swearing-in brought the national spotlight squarely on the capital city’s — and America’s — black population.

Obama and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) had lunch at Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street earlier this month, while the first family attended services at the historic black Nineteenth Street Baptist Church on Sunday. On Monday, Obama and his family marked Martin Luther King Jr. Day by helping paint the Sasha Bruce House for homeless teen boys in an impoverished neighborhood in Northeast Washington.

Taking the reins from President George W. Bush, who as he exited office found himself facing one of the lowest public opinion numbers of any president, Obama becomes president at a time of significant economic upheaval and global unrest.

In his acceptance speech before a sea of hundreds of thousands of people, Obama, 47, struck a sober tone, acknowledging the difficult challenges his administration will face over the next four years.

“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,” Obama told the masses.

“Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet,” he said, adding that “these are the indicators of crisis.”

Obama also referenced the increasingly pessimistic feeling in the country: “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.”

But Obama also used the speech to lay out his forthcoming agenda in broad strokes, touching on energy and climate change policy, the economic and housing crises and his commitment to withdraw troops from Iraq.

“Everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together,” Obama said.

“We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.”

The Obama administration already has committed to spending billions of dollars to try to right the economy, meeting early resistance from many fiscal conservatives on Capitol Hill. But Obama sought to win over his rivals — using the opportunity provided by the speech to speak directly to those concerns.

“There are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. 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 said.

“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,” he continued. “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.”

Obama and his family began the day early, including a stop at the White House to bid farewell to the Bushes. Michelle Obama and the outgoing first lady greeted each other as their husbands shook hands outside the door.

As Obama left his new residence to board the motorcade to Capitol Hill, Beatlemania-style screams could be heard from the bleachers on Pennsylvania Avenue set up for the inaugural parade.

The new president’s route to the Hill was lined largely with well-wishers and supporters, although at one point the procession passed a group of people with signs reading “Arrest Bush,” while at another anti-Obama protesters held signs that read “God Hates Obama” and “Obama: The Beast.”

But by and large, the protests were few and far between. While Bush was greeted by a cheer of, “Na, na, na, na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye,” when he was announced to the crowd, he also received applause.

Even the anti-war organization CODEPINK — which is generally an equal opportunity protesting outfit — did not look to disrupt the event.

The estimated 2 million spectators began streaming onto the National Mall as early as 4 a.m. Tuesday, and in many cases saw long delays as the more than 28,000 police and National Guard troops struggled to provide secure access to the area. Tens of thousands of attendees began lining up at one entrance by 5:30 a.m., and they waited for hours to be processed through a set of metal detectors.

Those hiccups didn’t deter the throngs of participants who came to see Obama take the oath. In his speech, he reaffirmed to them his commitment to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq, while reassuring the concerns of some that he would weaken the nation’s military strength.

Obama also sought to allay the fears of some within the Muslim world who view the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a war against Islam.

“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society’s ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy,” Obama said.

In the end, Obama stuck to the familiar themes of hope and inspiration that helped launch his meteoric rise from a community organizer on the streets of Chicago to the White House.

Invoking President George Washington’s speech on the shore of the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War as he looked to inspire his troops, Obama called on the nation to rally together.

“With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come,” Obama said. “Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”