Obama Practices What He Preaches: Service

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President-elect Barack Obama spent the day before his inauguration focusing on service. He called on Americans to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr by volunteering in their communities.


And here's another thing that President Obama, or President-to-be Obama, has been doing since - as he goes into taking office. He's been painting. He helped to refurbish a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter yesterday. And he encouraged all Americans to volunteer in their own community, saying government can't solve every problem. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: The president-elect's turn with the paint roller was part of a day-long celebration of public service. Mr. Obama said it was an appropriate way to spend Martin Luther King Day, calling the late civil rights leader not just a dreamer, but a doer. For Sam Wilson(ph), who grew up in Atlanta, today's inauguration is a fitting bookend to Dr. King's March on Washington 46 years ago.

Mr. SAM WILSON: This picture, you know, for households of African-Americans and other different ethnicities, I think the moment - the March on Washington hangs in a lot of houses, either in their hearts or in their minds or physically. I think this moment will hang in a lot of homes to inspire the generations to come about what can be. It certainly will hang in our home.

HORSLEY: Wilson plans to be on the National Mall today, as close as he can get to the swearing in ceremony. He says he's already been inspired by Mr. Obama's call to service, a message the president-elect tried to drive home yesterday. Shaking hands with volunteers at Calvin Coolidge High School in Washington, Mr. Obama said it's his job to make government work, but everyone else has a job to do as well.

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: Government can only do so much. And if we're just waiting around for somebody else to do it for us, if we're waiting around for somebody else to clean up the vacant lot, or waiting for somebody else to get involved in tutoring a child, if we're waiting for somebody else to do something, it never gets done.

HORSLEY: Standing near the U.S. Capitol, where Mr. Obama will take the oath of office today, Henry Wiley(ph) said the president-elect's call for service is the right message for the time.

Mr. HENRY WILEY: With conditions as they are in this country, with the country at war and with the economy in the state that it's in, I think people are in a mood to listen to that kind of talk and that kind of request.

(Soundbite of music)

HORSLEY: Wiley's wife and two young children listened as engineers tested the giant loudspeakers that will broadcast the inauguration to hundreds of thousands of people gathered around the Capitol. It's a big moment for the entire country, Wiley said. And he wanted his kids to be a part of it.

Mr. WILEY: They've been talking about "Back Obama" these last few days. Gwen's(ph) convinced he's going to come over and give her a hug.

HORSLEY: Gwen is only two years old though, and her brother Brady(ph) just five. So instead of braving the outdoor cold, they'll watch today's ceremony from home in nearby Maryland. Not so Catherine Nash(ph). The 65-year-old traveled from Fort Worth, Texas, to be here. She plans to be outside waving on Pennsylvania Avenue when the nation's first black president passes by.

Ms. CATHERINE NASH: I'm very proud to be here because I feel that we have hope and yes, we can. And I say that because I have a six-year-old grandchild, and I believe that she can go all the way. This is a great day in history. And I just had to come.

HORSLEY: Nash says the people who've gathered in Washington to hear Mr. Obama today are no strangers to the kind of sacrifice he's calling for. She hopes they'll be inspired by his message of working together, and that afterwards, when they return to their homes, they'll be ready to do what they can. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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