Obama, D.C. Set For Historic Inauguration

Inauguration Day is here and visitors are jamming the nation's capital to watch the country's first African-American become president.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. This Inauguration Day is the day when Washington most feels like the nation's capital.

MONTAGNE: It's also the Inauguration Day of the nation's first African-American president.

INSKEEP: So, what did you see on your way in this morning, Renee, at 3 o'clock in the morning?

MONTAGNE: I saw some pretty unusual things, at 2.30 actually - I gave myself an extra half an hour. People walking across - in icy, icy weather - bridges. You never see them there in the middle of the night. An alternative route I took going by Ben's Chili Bowl, now famous. Now everyone knows about...

INSKEEP: Barack Obama stopped in there...

MONTAGNE: Didn't mean to do it. Everything else was barricaded off. The place was going nuts - really, really crazy.

INSKEEP: Middle of the night rush-hour traffic in some parts of Washington, D.C. Let's talk about this day now with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: The last several days in Washington have had quite a bit of buildup.

LIASSON: It certainly has. People have been filling this town. We've heard crowd estimates ranging from one million to two million people who will be on the Mall today. And from what I've seen around town, the hoards of people pouring into Union Station yesterday to pedestrian - that's pedestrian gridlock downtown last night. I would say this town is packed to the gills with hopeful and happy people.

MONTAGNE: And, you know, while all those people are waiting - and you actually have to say it's very, very cold here - what is Barack Obama's morning going to be like?

LIASSON: Well, the president-elect and his wife will follow the traditional program of Inauguration Day events. They'll start with a prayer service at St. John's Episcopal Church, which is right across Lafayette Park, right across from the White House. They'll move on to the North Portico of the White House itself. That's a very seldom-used entrance. They'll meet President George W. Bush and the first lady. They will travel up to the Capitol together, all four of them. They'll be seated right about 11 o'clock Eastern time, and then he'll take the oath of office.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Mara Liasson on this inauguration morning. And Mara, we should mention if people go back into inaugural addresses, they don't find too many that are memorable. But a few are. What clues do you have about the direction that Barack Obama will take?

LIASSON: Yes, I think that this one will be memorable. It won't be long - probably 15 to 20 minutes. Most of them are pretty short. I think he will stress the same themes he's been using since he started to run for president - hope, unity. He'll talk about a new era of responsibility. Senior transition officials say that he wants to describe the moment we're in. He'll say our nation is at war, our economy is in crisis, and we have to move beyond the old politics. But I think almost nothing that he says will be more overwhelming than the fact of him standing there, an African-American, promising to preserve, protect, and defend a Constitution that originally counted a black man as three-fifths of a person.

MONTAGNE: All of this could be pretty overwhelming for Mr. Obama himself. Expectations are off the charts. You know, looking ahead just momentarily, how does he manage these expectations and keep them realistic?

LIASSON: Well, he certainly is talking a lot about the problems ahead and how difficult they'll be to solve. The polls show that he has tremendous goodwill. I don't think any modern president has come into office with this much goodwill. And there are good reasons for that. The historic nature of his presidency, the decisive win he had, also just the seriousness of the problems we face. So everyone wants him to succeed because the alternative is quite horrible to contemplate.

But it does seem from the polls that people are absorbing the message he's been sending that it's going to be tough, it's going to take a long time to solve these problems. People seem ready to make sacrifices. But I think the Obama team is very aware that very soon he'll own all of these problems. He'll own the economy. He'll own Iraq. He'll own Afghanistan. They need to move very fast to make a difference. And that's why we've had an Obama pre-presidency. He's already moving to pass legislation through Congress before he was inaugurated.

INSKEEP: Now, Mara, since you mention that everybody wants him to succeed - and in a large sense, of course, that's true - but when you get down to details, there is another party here. And in fact President-elect Obama dropped by a party that included John McCain last night, as I understand.

LIASSON: He did, the man he defeated for the presidency. He was at a party to honor Senator McCain. I think that's really unprecedented. I can't think on Inauguration Eve of another incoming president honoring the man he just defeated. But this is really one of the things he's been pushing hard on, reaching out to the other side, a lot of bipartisan symbolism. Talk about a team of rivals - he's not just honoring John McCain, he's been calling him repeatedly for advice.

But Barack Obama wants to do big things. And after he passes the stimulus package, he wants to do health care, energy, at some point a deficit reduction and entitlement reform package, all in his first term. And he wants to do these big things with big majorities, at least in the Senate. And I don't think he can get the public to make sacrifices - because that's what you're going to need, at least after the tax and spending part of the stimulus is over. That's the easy part. You need a lot of bipartisan buy-in to do the things that he wants to do. So he's not just saying all the right things. He really is trying to include Republican ideas in his legislation.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Mara Liasson is NPR's national political correspondent.

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