Obama Rallies Crowd To Meet Country's Challenges

In his inaugural address Tuesday, President Obama acknowledged that the country faces daunting challenges. But he promised "we the people" will meet those challenges. And the cheering throngs who celebrated his inauguration seem ready to try.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep. Now that the crowds are gone and the cleanup has begun, a very small number of people woke up this morning with a view of the National Mall. That small number includes the new occupants of the White House. It was a festive Inauguration Day, but a somber speech suggested the challenges of the days ahead. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on a new president's first day.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Inauguration Day for Barack Obama began at St. John's Episcopal Church not far from the White House. The church choir sang "This Little Light of Mine," and a visiting pastor from Dallas, T.D. Jakes, observed that God always sends the best men into the worst times. Mr. Obama, his running mate, Joe Biden, and their wives then had coffee at the White House with George and Laura Bush and Dick and Lynne Cheney as a huge crowd assembled on the National Mall. The noontime swearing in ceremony was preceded by some all-star musical talent ranging from Itzhak Perlman to Aretha Franklin.

(Soundbite of song "My Country 'Tis of Thee")

Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) My country,' tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing...

HORSLEY: The day was mostly clear and cold in Washington with temperatures hovering in the 20s. In his inaugural address, President Obama hearkened back to another frigid winter, suggesting that as tough as times might seem right now, the nation has weathered worse.

(Soundbite of inaugural address)

President BARACK OBAMA: In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by nine campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood...

HORSLEY: At that moment, Mr. Obama said, when the American Revolution was most in doubt, George Washington offered an inspirational message.

(Soundbite of inaugural address)

President OBAMA: "Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it."

HORSLEY: Aides say the president's speechwriting team began working on the address before Thanksgiving, but that Mr. Obama himself wrote most of it a couple of weekends ago while holed up in Washington's Hay-Adams Hotel. He wanted to express the severity of the situation the nation finds itself in - a struggling economy and two wars - while at the same time instilling confidence that those challenges can be overcome.

(Soundbite of inaugural address)

President OBAMA: 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.

(Soundbite of crowd ovation)

HORSLEY: The new president has championed a huge economic stimulus package, while at the same time promising to reform health care and develop cleaner forms of energy. He said the question is no longer whether government is too big or too small, but rather whether government works.

(Soundbite of inaugural address)

President OBAMA: When the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. When the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

HORSLEY: And as much as government can and should do, Mr. Obama said, every American has to take responsibility for the common good. VIPs at the Capitol included Chesley Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who guided his crippled jet to a safe river landing last week, then made certain that everyone got off the plane. Mr. Obama paid tribute to some less famous acts of heroism.

(Soundbite of inaugural address)

President OBAMA: It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job, which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child that finally decides our fate.

HORSLEY: On foreign policy, Mr. Obama renewed his promise to end the war in Iraq, while also warning terrorists that the U.S. won't bend in its battle against them. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered to hear the speech in person in a crowd that stretched from the Capitol well beyond the Washington Monument. Joseph Holloway(ph) and his three-year-old son chose to watch from the far end of the Mall on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Mr. JOSEPH HOLLOWAY: When you just think about what happened during Lincoln's time and then with King making such a huge statement to the world from these very steps, and to be here when the first African-American president is sworn in to the office is just unbelievable. It's something that, you know, we'll never forget. And I think it's a great opportunity for our son.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama did not dwell on race, but he did suggest his election is a sign of how far the nation has come.

(Soundbite of inaugural address)

President OBAMA: This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why 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.

HORSLEY: After taking that oath, with his hand on Lincoln's Bible, Mr. Obama escorted former President Bush to the east side of the Capitol for his departure to his home in Texas. Later, the new White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, issued a memo freezing all pending Bush-era regulations until the new administration can review them. While the new administration has a lot on its plate, the president and first lady did take a few hours yesterday to party.

(Soundbite of drumming and people cheering)

HORSLEY: More than a hundred different performing groups marched west from the Capitol in the inaugural parade, including the band from President Obama's old high school in Hawaii and the Isiserettes Drill and Drum Corps from Iowa, the state that launched his presidential bid. But it wasn't the marching bands or the parade floats that really excited the crowds lining Pennsylvania Avenue.

Unidentified Man: Obama!

Crowd: Obama!

Unidentified Man: Obama, Obama, Obama...

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

HORSLEY: Just past 7th Street, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama stepped out of their limousine, and the crowd went wild - crowds 10 deep lining either side of the street chanting in celebration of the new president and first lady. Barack Obama, Michelle Obama walking hand in hand down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, the U.S. Capitol behind them and the White House just ahead.

The first couple then danced their way through 10 official inaugural balls. It was a long day and a long night, the first of many Mr. Obama will spend as president. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Let's be fair, the presidential oath of office was not as badly botched as the oath in various slapstick movies - you know, where the guy says, repeat after me, I, state your name. And the answer comes back, I, state your name. It wasn't that bad. Still there was an awkward moment when Chief Justice John Roberts got the words slightly out of order. He said the word "faithfully" in the wrong place. And the new president paused as if wondering whether to say the words in the order that they are written in the Constitution or just politely repeat after Justice Roberts.

Chief Justice JOHN ROBERTS (Supreme Court): I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear.

President OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear.

Chief Justice ROBERTS: That I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully.

President OBAMA: That I will execute...

Chief Justice ROBERTS: The office - faithfully the office of president of the United States.

President OBAMA: the office of president to the United States faithfully.

Chief Justice ROBERTS: And will to the best of my ability.

President OBAMA: And will to the best of my ability.

INSKEEP: You'll notice that after that awkward pause, the politeness of both men prevailed. Even as the chief justice was correcting himself, the president repeated the words in the way that Roberts misspoke them. Chief Justice Roberts was a nominee of President Bush, and the people that opposed him included Senator Barack Obama, which made that awkward pause, if anything, more meaningful. This first moment of the new administration showcased two people of very different backgrounds and very different views just trying to get it right. You can explore NPR's coverage of the inauguration from the National Mall, across the country, and across the world at our Web site, npr.org.

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Obama Sworn In As Nation's 44th President

Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in Tuesday as the 44th president of the United States, writing a new chapter in American history as the first African-American to hold the nation's highest office.

Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th president of the United States by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts while first lady Michelle Obama looks on. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

Photos: The Swearing-In Of Barack Obama
itoggle caption Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

With his hand on the gilt-edged, burgundy Bible used by President Lincoln in 1861, Obama swore to "preserve, protect and defend" the Constitution in front of an ebullient, possibly record-breaking crowd gathered on the National Mall.

"Earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions," he told the crowd in his inaugural address. "They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint."

Obama said he would begin to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in a responsible manner and would work to stabilize Afghanistan. Aides said Obama would order the military to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq on Wednesday during a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Obama Reaches Out To Muslims

Obama also promised to improve relations with Muslim countries.

"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," said Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world. But he also had a warning for those who would threaten the American way of life through terrorism.

"We say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you," he said.

On the economy, Obama said his plan for rebuilding and expanding the country's infrastructure will take the U.S. economy into a new age.

"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," Obama said.

Chief Justice John Roberts, whose confirmation Obama opposed, administered the 35-word oath. Michelle Obama and daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, joined Obama on the platform as he was sworn in. Moments before, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens gave the oath of office to Vice President Joe Biden, 66.

Crowd Packs Mall

Obama was sworn in on a platform on the West Front of the Capitol as a crowd estimated by The Associated Press at more than 1 million people looked on. The enthusiastic masses packed the Mall in the hours leading up to the ceremony, braving temperatures in the teens early Tuesday morning.

People began making their way to the Mall before 6 a.m., with some trains packed to capacity by the time they reached stops in Washington. Nearly 874,000 people had ridden the rails of Washington's transit system as of 5 p.m. Tuesday. Tens of thousands of people were shuttled to the Mall on 23 bus routes.

Despite the crowds and the cold, spectators were energized. Dozens of vendors hawked everything from Obama T-shirts to Obama hand puppets as groups of people trekked down Massachusetts Avenue toward the Mall.

Sachiko Minowa was glowing as she walked downtown in 20-degree weather. A Japanese immigrant who now lives in San Francisco, Minowa said she has eagerly awaited the change in administrations. "I came to the United States five years ago," she said. "This is the moment I've been waiting for."

Spectators Energized Despite Cold, Crowds

Another woman said the inauguration was the perfect present for her 33rd birthday.

"I've felt under siege the last eight years," said South Bend, Ind., resident Willow Wetherall. "I can breathe easier knowing I have a partner in Washington who represents my values."

The new first family began Tuesday with a church service at St. John's Episcopal Church, across Lafayette Park from the White House. The Obamas traveled to the White House for a traditional coffee with Bush, then to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremonies.

After the transfer of power, former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, boarded a helicopter at the Capitol and flew to Andrews Air Force Base, where they boarded a military jet for the trip to their new home in Texas.

Following the swearing-in ceremony, a parade in Obama's honor wound its way more than a mile and a half through the streets of Washington.

Twice, Obama and his wife, Michelle, got out of the presidential motorcade and walked along the parade route, waving to tens of thousands of cheering, flag-waving supporters. Following the Obamas' lead, Biden and wife Jill also walked part of the route, waving and smiling at the joyful crowd.

Later that evening, the Obamas made an appearance at the first of 10 official inaugural balls they planned to attend.

At the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball, Obama and the first lady, who wore a white, one-shouldered gown, danced to the Stevie Wonder hit "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," a cornerstone of his campaign rallies.

"First of all, how good-looking is my wife?" Obama asked the crowd of celebrities and supporters alike.

Linton Weeks and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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