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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Obama calls for remaking of America

Millions brave freezing temperatures in Washington for historic inauguration ceremony.

Daniel Nasaw in Washington and Mark Tran
For guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 20 January 2009


The national mall in Washington was packed with people who had been arriving since before dawn to witness Barack Obama's inauguration. Barack Obama, the first African-American to be elected to the White House, today called for a "new era of responsibility" as he was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.

In front of a crowd of more than 1 million people, Obama acknowledged in his inauguration speech that times were fraught, with the US fighting two wars and grappling with the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.

"That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood," he told a crowd that stretched out for miles before him. "Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.

"Our economy is badly weakened – a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age."

But the 47-year-old said he was ready to meet the challenges confronting the US: "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

Obama went on to say that the US "will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan". While not mentioning al-Qaida by name, he had hard words for America's enemies.

"We will not apologise for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defence," the new US president said. "And 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. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

In an indictment of the Bush era, he also called for a return to traditional values of hard work and honesty.

"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world ..."

Crowds filled the National Mall prior to the inauguration ceremony for Barack Obama. The handover to a new US administration began its ritual unfolding when Obama and his wife, Michelle, arrived at the White House to be met by George and Laura Bush on a red carpet.

The four posed for the cameras after Michelle, wearing a pale gold sheath dress with matching coat by the Cuban-born American designer Isabel Toledo, handed a giftwrapped box to the Bushes.

After the traditional short pre-inauguation coffee, the incoming and outgoing presidential entourages made their way in their armoured motorcades to the ceremony. The soul music legend Aretha Franklin kicked off proceedings by singing Let Freedom Ring, watched by the Washington elite and Hollywood celebrities including Dustin Hoffman, Stephen Spielberg and John Cusack.

As Bush arrived at the Capitol, a smattering of boos could be heard. Dick Cheney, Bush's vice-president, who had pulled a muscle in his back, attended the ceremony in a wheelchair. Bush later left the White House by helicopter for the last time.

In keeping with tradition, Bush had left a note for Obama in the top drawer of his desk in the Oval Office. Dana Perino, the former White House press secretary, said it wished Obama well in beginning a "fabulous new chapter" in the US.

Planners expected attendance easily to top the 1.2 million people who attended Lyndon Johnson's 1965 inauguration, the largest crowd the national park service has on record.

Trains were crowded, and passengers were in jubilant and expectant mood, despite the early hour and subzero temperatures. Thousands of charter buses from across the country are in the capital, packing car parks and streets, many of which closed last night to accommodate the surge of overnight visitors and day-trippers.

For the great gathering, Washington was locked down, with street closures, checkpoints, camouflage-clad soldiers at main intersections, air patrols and police boats in the harbour.

As the crowds packed into the US Capitol grounds and nearby parkland to witness Obama take the oath of office, as many as 40,000 military, civilian and private security officers were on duty, roughly one for every 50 people in attendance.

Just before Obama was sworn in, the homeland security department said it was investigating a potential threat "of uncertain credibility". Law enforcement and intelligence officials said they had received information that people associated with a Somalia-based group, al-Shabaab, may try to travel to the US with plans to disrupt the inauguration.

Obama took his oath on the same Bible Abraham Lincoln used at his 1861 inauguration, when he proclaimed the end of slavery.

Tomorrow, on his first working day in office, Obama is expected to fulfil 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 to order the pullout.

Before the inauguration, the Vatican released a message from Pope Benedict XVI in which the Pontiff said he was praying that God would grant Obama "unfailing wisdom and strength" in carrying out his responsibilities. Benedict also said attention must be paid to the poor, the outcast, the hungry and "those who have no voice".

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