President Barack Obama: Hope and History

Barack Hussein Obama became the 44th President of the United States today, making history as the country’s first black chief executive as the nation shoulders the burden of war and economic calamity.

Placing his left hand on the Bible used by Abraham Lincoln for his first term in 1861, Obama took the oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts at noon as an estimated crowd of 2 million packed the windswept Capitol to be an eyewitness to history.

"We gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord," Obama said. 

An unlikely candidate swept to office on a message of hope and change that captured the imaginations of Americans and the world, the 47-year-old Obama, the nation’s fourth youngest president, swore to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” amid the backdrop of national monuments built in part by slaves.

The President began his inaugural address by acknowledging the “gathering clouds and raging storms” of this perilous era of American history.

“At these moments, 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 forbearers, and true to our founding documents,”Obama said. “So it has been.  So it must be with this generation of Americans. That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood.  Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.  Our economy is badly weakened.”

While acknowledging “a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights,”  Obama echoed his optimistic campaign refrains of “change” and “yes, we can.”

“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real,” Obama said. “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,“ as the gathered multitudes roared in emotional approval.

With 11 million Americans out of work and trillions of dollars lost in the stock market's tumble, Obama emphasized that his biggest challenge is to repair the tattered economy left behind by outgoing President George W. Bush.

"Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed," Obama said in an undisguised shot at Bush administration policies. "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin the work of remaking America."

Obama spoke these rousing words after evangelical minister Rick Warren delivered the convocation and Aretha Franklin sang a soaring version of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" amid the bitter cold. 

The frigid weather did little, however, to dampen the joy of the throngs of Americans who made the pilgrimage to see Obama break a racial barrier that many once believed impossible.

The ceremony also marked the end of the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush who leaves office as one of the nation's most unpopular and divisive presidents, the architect of two unfinished wars and the man in charge at a time of economic calamity that swept away many Americans' jobs, savings, homes and dreams — leaving behind a sickening feeling of insecurity.

The Constitution says the clock — not the pomp, ceremony and oaths — signals the transfer of the office from the old president to the new one.

The 20th Amendment to the Constitution specifies that the terms of office of the president and vice president "shall end at noon on the 20th day of January ... and the terms of their successors shall then begin."

More than 10,000 people from all 50 states — including bands and military units — were assembled to follow Obama and Biden from the Capitol on the 1.5-mile inaugural parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue, concluding at a bulletproof reviewing stand in front of the White House. Security was unprecedented. Most bridges into Washington and about 3.5 square miles of downtown were closed.

Obama's inauguration represents a time of renewal and optimism for a nation gripped by fear and anxiety. Stark numbers tell the story of an economic debacle unrivaled since the 1930s:

—Eleven million people have lost their jobs, pushing the unemployment rate to 7.2 percent, a 16-year high.

—One in 10 U.S. homeowners is delinquent on mortgage payments or in arrears.

—The Dow Jones industrial average fell by 33.8 percent in 2008, the worst decline since 1931, and stocks lost $10 trillion in value between October 2007 and November 2008.

Obama and congressional Democrats are working on an $825 billion economic recovery bill that would provide an enormous infusion of public spending and tax cuts. Obama also will have at his disposal the remaining $350 billion in the federal financial bailout fund. His goal is to save or create 3 million jobs and put banks back in the business of lending.

In an appeal for bipartisanship, Obama honored defeated Republican presidential rival John McCain at a dinner Monday night. "There are few Americans who understand this need for common purpose and common effort better than John McCain," Obama said.

Young and untested, Obama is a man of enormous confidence and electrifying oratorical skills. Hopes for Obama are extremely high, suggesting that Americans are willing to give him a long honeymoon to strengthen the economy and lift the financial gloom.

On Wednesday, his first working day in office, Obama is expected to redeem his campaign promise to begin the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq under a 16-month timetable. Aides said he would summon the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Oval Office and order that the pullout commence.

On a much broader note, Obama will seek to deliver on the promises he made on the campaign trail and on the promise he showed when he delivered an electrifying speech during the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

"There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America," Obama said in a speech that thrust him into the spotlight. "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."

[Read the full text of Obama's inaugural address]

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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