Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Obama Sworn In: History Made
January 21, 2009
Obama Takes Oath, and Nation in Crisis Embraces the Moment
By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States on Tuesday and promised to “begin again the work of remaking America” on a day of celebration that climaxed a once-inconceivable journey for the man and his country.
Mr. Obama, the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, inherited a White House built partly by slaves and a nation in crisis at home and abroad. The moment captured the imagination of much of the world as more than a million flag-waving people bore witness while Mr. Obama recited the oath with his hand on the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln used at his inauguration 148 years ago.
Beyond the politics of the occasion, the sight of a black man climbing the highest peak electrified people across racial, generational and partisan lines. Mr. Obama largely left it to others to mark the history explicitly, making only passing reference to his own barrier-breaking role in his 18-minute Inaugural Address, noting how improbable it might seem that “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.”
But confronted by the worst economic situation in decades, two overseas wars and the continuing threat of Islamic terrorism, Mr. Obama sobered the celebration with a grim assessment of the state of a nation rocked by home foreclosures, shuttered businesses, lost jobs, costly health care, failing schools, energy dependence and the threat of climate change. Signaling a sharp and immediate break with the presidency of George W. Bush, he vowed to usher in a “new era of responsibility” and restore tarnished American ideals.
“Today, I say to you that the challenges we face are real,” Mr. Obama said in the address, delivered from the west front of the Capitol. “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.”
The vast crowd that thronged the Mall on a frigid but bright winter day was the largest to attend an inauguration in decades, if not ever. Many then lined Pennsylvania Avenue for a parade that continued well past nightfall on a day that was not expected to end for Mr. Obama until late in the night with the last of 10 inaugural balls.
Mr. Bush left the national stage quietly, doing nothing to upstage his successor. After hosting the Obamas for coffee at the White House and attending the ceremony at the Capitol, Mr. Bush hugged Mr. Obama, then left through the Rotunda to head back to Texas. “Come on, Laura, we’re going home,” he was overheard telling Mrs. Bush.
The inauguration coincided with more bad news from Wall Street, with the Dow Jones industrial average down more than 300 points on indications of further trouble for banks.
The spirit of the day was also marred by the hospitalization of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, whose endorsement helped propel Mr. Obama to the Democratic nomination last year. Mr. Kennedy, who has been fighting a malignant brain tumor, suffered a seizure at a Capitol luncheon after the ceremony and was wheeled out on a stretcher.
The pageantry included some serious business. Shortly after he and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. were sworn in, Mr. Obama ordered all pending Bush regulations frozen for a legal and policy review. He also signed formal nomination papers for his cabinet, and the Senate quickly confirmed seven nominees: the secretaries of homeland security, energy, agriculture, interior, education and veterans’ affairs and the director of the Office of Management and Budget.
When he arrives in the Oval Office on Wednesday, aides said, Mr. Obama will get to work on some of his priorities. He plans to convene his national security team and senior military commanders to discuss his plans to pull combat troops out of Iraq and bolster those in Afghanistan. He also plans to sign executive orders to start closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and could reverse Mr. Bush’s restrictions on financing for groups that promote or provide information about abortion.
Delays in the confirmation process have left both the State Department and the Treasury Department in the hands of caretakers. But Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected to win Senate confirmation as secretary of state on Wednesday, and the Pentagon remains under the control of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who was kept on from the Bush administration and did not attend the inauguration so someone in the line of succession would survive in case of terrorist attack.
In his address, Mr. Obama praised Mr. Bush “for his service to our nation as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.” But he also offered implicit criticism, condemning what he called “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”
He went on to assure the rest of the world that change had come. “To all other peoples and governments who are watching today,” Mr. Obama said, “from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born, know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.”
Some of Mr. Obama’s supporters booed and taunted Mr. Bush when he emerged from the Capitol to take his place on stage, at one point singing, “Nah, nah, nah, nah, hey, hey, hey, goodbye.” By day’s end, Mr. Bush had landed in Texas, where he defended his presidency and declared that he was “coming home with my head held high.”
The departing vice president, Dick Cheney, appeared at the ceremony in a wheelchair after suffering a back injury moving the day before and was also booed.
The nation’s 56th inauguration drew waves of people from all corners and filled the expanse between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. For the first transition in power since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, much of the capital was under exceptionally tight security, with a two-square-mile swath under the strictest control. Bridges from Virginia were closed to regular traffic and more than 35,000 civilian and military personnel were on duty.
Mr. Obama secured at least part of his legacy the moment he walked into the White House on Tuesday, 146 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 108 years after the first black man dined in the mansion with a president and 46 years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared his dream of equality.
Mr. Obama, just 47 years old and four years out of the Illinois State Senate, arrived at this moment on the unlikeliest of paths, vaulted to the forefront of national politics on the strength of stirring speeches, early opposition to the Iraq war and public disenchantment with the Bush era. His scant record of achievement at the national level proved less important to voters than his embodiment of change.
His foreign-sounding name, his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia and his skin color made him a unique figure in the annals of presidential campaigns, yet he toppled two of the best brand names in American politics — Mrs. Clinton in the primaries and Senator John McCain in the general election.
Mr. Obama himself is descended on his mother’s side from ancestors who owned slaves and he can trace his family tree to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. The power of the moment was lost on no one as the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, one of the towering figures of the civil rights movement, gave the benediction and called for “inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.”
The Rev. Rick Warren, a conservative minister selected by Mr. Obama to give the invocation despite protests from liberals, told the crowd, “We know today that Dr. King and a great cloud of witnesses are shouting in heaven.”
For all that, Mr. Obama used the occasion to address “this winter of our hardship” and promote his plan for vast federal spending accompanied by tax cuts to stimulate the economy and begin addressing energy, environmental and infrastructure needs.
“Now there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans,” he said. “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.”
He also essentially renounced the curtailment of liberties in the name of security, saying he would “reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” He struck a stiff note on terrorism, saying Americans “will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense.”
“For those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken,” he said. “You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”
But Mr. Obama also added a message to Islamic nations, a first from the inaugural lectern. “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” Mr. Obama said. “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history — but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
Mr. Obama’s public day started at 8:45 a.m. when he and his wife, Michelle, left Blair House for a service at St. John’s Church, then joined the Bushes, Cheneys and Bidens for coffee at the White House.
The Obamas’ daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, joined them at the Capitol, as did Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain, as well as former Presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and the elder George Bush.
While emotional for many, the ceremony did not go entirely according to plan. Mr. Biden was sworn in by Justice John Paul Stevens behind schedule at 11:57 a.m., and Mr. Obama did not take the oath until 12:05 p.m., five minutes past the constitutionally prescribed transfer of power.
Moreover, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stumbled over the 35-word oath, causing Mr. Obama to repeat it out of the constitutional order. Instead of swearing that he “will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States,” Mr. Obama swore that he “will execute the office of president of the United States faithfully.”
Following time-honored rituals, the Obamas attended lunch with lawmakers in Statuary Hall at the Capitol, then rode and walked to the White House, where they watched the parade from a bulletproof reviewing stand. They planned to attend all 10 official inaugural balls before spending their first night in the White House.
In his Inaugural Address, Mr. Obama seemed at times to be having a virtual dialogue with his predecessors. “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility,” he said, “a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly.” Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton likewise called for responsibility at their inaugurations, but Mr. Obama offered little sense of what exactly he wanted Americans to do.
Mr. Obama also seemed to take issue with Ronald Reagan, who declared when he took office in 1981 that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Mr. Clinton rebutted that in 1997, saying, “government is not the problem and government is not the solution.”
Mr. Obama offered a new formulation: “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.”
Mr. Clinton, at least, applauded the message. In a brief interview afterward, he said Mr. Obama’s installation could change the way America was viewed.
“It’s obviously historic because President Obama is the first African-American president, but it’s more than that,” Mr. Clinton said. “This is a time when we’re clearly making a new beginning. It’s a country of repeated second-chances and new beginnings.”