Washington, DC: US President Barack Obama said on Tuesday he is taking the helm of a nation that is “in the midst of crisis” and which faces challenges that “will not be met easily or in a short span of time” but “will be met”.
Obama’s comments came in a prepared inaugural address that he gave a few minutes after taking oath as the 44th US President, shattering racial barriers as the first black leader of a country gripped by profound economic troubles and at war in two distant lands.
New way forward:US President Barack Obama takes the oath of office, with wife Michelle holding the Bible, in Washington on Tuesday. Elise Amendola / AP
He took over a nation longing for change after President George W. Bush’s eight divisive years in the White House, an era that witnessed the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, the beginning of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and an economic collapse not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Obama’s ascendancy marks a milestone once unthinkable in a nation that has struggled with racial issues since its founding, and where segregation was practised in many southern states until decades ago. It took place outside the US Capitol, which slaves helped build. Obama took his oath on the same Bible used at the 1861 inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, whose Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery.
Obama spoke of the US war against what he called “a far-reaching network of violence and hatred”. And he also talked of a “badly weakened” economy that he said was the result of “greed and irresponsibility”.
Braving icy temperatures and possible snow flurries, hundreds of thousands of people descended on the heavily guarded capital city on Tuesday for the first change of administration since 2001.
Streets filled up well before dawn and Washington subway cars were standing-room-only shortly after the trains began running at 4am.
The unfinished business of the Bush administration thrusts an enormous burden onto the new administration, though polls show Americans are confident Obama is on track to succeed. He has cautioned that improvements will take time and that things will get worse before they get better.
In a fourth day of celebration, the nation’s 56th inauguration day began for Obama and vice-president-elect Joe Biden with a traditional morning worship service at St John’s Episcopal Church, across Lafayette Park from the White House. Bells pealed from the historic church’s tower as Obama arrived with wife Michelle.
The Obamas waved to bystanders, then entered the church to applause from about 200 people. The choir and congregation began singing the hymn, O God Our Help in Ages Past.
After the 45-minute service, the Obamas were welcomed to the White House for coffee. The outgoing president and first lady Laura Bush greeted them at the north portico, according to custom.
Obama’s election electrified millions across the globe with the hope that the new US leader would be more inclusive and open to the needs of people and governments worldwide, more collaborative and more inclined to attack problems with diplomacy than with military power.
Tuesday’s ceremony is the culmination of a remarkable ascent for the 47-year-old Democrat, who moves into the Oval Office as the nation’s fourth youngest president. In less than five years, he rose from a little-known Illinois state lawmaker to the nation’s highest office, persuading Americans that despite his relative inexperience, he could turn around the economy, end the Iraq war and restore US standing in the world.
A gifted, inspirational speaker, Obama has raised the hopes of millions as he outlined a new course for the US. He has promised to emphasize diplomacy, seek global solutions to climate change, reject torture and shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison.
Obama’s presidency puts Democrats firmly in charge of Washington. They will control both chambers of Congress and the White House for the first time since 1994.
Though the new President faces monumental challenges, he should face an extended honeymoon as he takes over from Bush, who leaves Washington as one of the nation’s most unpopular and divisive presidents.
The 43rd President’s approval ratings, which soared after 11 September, plummeted over his handling of the Iraq war, his slow response to Hurricane Katrina and the economic meltdown.
Pre-inauguration polls show Americans believe Obama is on track to succeed and express confidence the new President can turn the economy around.
But Obama has cautioned that recovery needs time, and that things will get worse before they get better.
Obama—son of a Kansas-born white woman and a Kenya-born black father—decided to use his full name, Barack Hussein Obama, for the swearing in. To the dismay of liberals, Obama invited conservative evangelical pastor and gay marriage opponent Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation.
At least 10,000 people from all 50 states—including bands and military units—assembled to follow Obama and Biden from the Capitol along the 2.4km inaugural parade route down Pennsylvania Avenue, concluding at a bulletproof reviewing stand in front of the White House. The inauguration drew up to two million people. Security was unprecedented as Washington braced for logistical headaches with major streets and bridges into the capital closed.
Second in command: US vice-president Joe Biden takes the oath of office as his wife Jill holds the Bible. At right are Biden's children (from left) Ashley, Hunter and Baeu. Jae C. Hong / AP
About a dozen members of Obama’s cabinet and top appointees—including secretary of state-designate Hillary Clinton, his former Democratic presidential rival—were ready for Senate confirmation on Tuesday, provided no objection was raised.
Treasury secretary-designate Timothy Geithner’s confirmation has been delayed because of his disclosure that he had failed to pay some taxes.
On Wednesday, his first working day in office, Obama is expected to redeem his campaign promise to begin the withdrawal of US 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.
He will also assemble his economic team to start work on reversing the economic slide.