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Obama begins train journey to Washington for inauguration

President-elect Barack Obama pledges to take up the work of America's founding fathers and invokes Lincoln at a rally in Philadelphia, where he boarded the train to the nation's capital.

January 18, 2009|Erika Hayasaki and Mike Dorning

PHILADELPHIA REPORTING ABOARD BARACK OBAMA'S TRAIN — The nation's 44th president-elect began his inaugural journey to the White House on a frigid Philadelphia morning, waving to onlookers and wearing no overcoat as he boarded a shiny 1939 rail car draped in red, white and blue.

"It was here, in this city, that our American journey began," Barack Obama told about 200 invited guests Saturday in Philadelphia's 30th Street Station before departing along the same path Abraham Lincoln took to Washington.

"It was here that a group of farmers and lawyers, merchants and soldiers, gathered to declare their independence and lay claim to a destiny that they were being denied."

Three days before being sworn into office, Obama warned of the grave challenges ahead as the nation confronts a faltering economy, two wars and global warming.

"And yet while our problems may be new, what is required to overcome them is not," Obama said. "What is required is the same perseverance and idealism that our Founders displayed."

Obama's address evoked the legacy of Lincoln, who boarded a train in the winter of 1861 and, for safety reasons, made his way to the capital at night before being sworn in as the 16th president. Weeks later the South seceded, leading to a civil war that killed more Americans than any other conflict, yet ended slavery.

Saturday's 137-mile whistle-stop tour rolled through Delaware and Maryland as throngs of joyous onlookers, bundled in furry hats, knit scarves and gloves, stood in 10-degree weather at lookout points along the tracks. It ended in the capital on the eve of a star-studded inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

Obama will take the oath of office Tuesday on a Bible used by Lincoln and attend an inaugural luncheon featuring favorite Lincoln foods.

In Philadelphia, Obama spoke in the train station's north waiting room, a marble stretch of high ceilings and gold-etched columns, as hundreds lined up behind metal fences in the main corridor hoping to catch a glimpse of the president-elect.

"It's history, not only because he's the first black president, but because he's proven anything is possible," said Walida Jones, 26, a mother of three who showed up at 7 a.m. wearing a sweat shirt silk-screened with Obama's face. She stood poised, holding a pink digital camera, as Obama's voice echoed from the next room. "Just to be in the same building with him is amazing."

Along the fence line, 11-year-old Justin Knoepfel clutched a book on Obama titled "Change We Can Believe In," which he picked up from the train station's convenience store. "Obama has seen what America has been through in the last eight years with the economy and the stock market, and I think he can turn things around," he said. The young history buff hoped to flag down Obama for an autograph before he boarded the train, but had no luck.

As the vintage royal-blue Georgia 300 train, which has been used by past politicians, chugged out of Philadelphia, onlookers holding American flags waved from overpasses. As it slowly wound its way to Wilmington, Del., people along the route could see Obama waving from the last car. Some followed it, walking as far as they could, yelling, "Yes, we did!" and "Thank you, Jesus!"

In Wilmington, Obama picked up his vice president-elect, who was wrapped in a red scarf and black overcoat. A conductor called Joe Biden "Amtrak's No. 1 commuter," because the former senator returned home to Wilmington from Washington by train almost every night for three decades to be with his sons after his first wife and daughter were killed in a car crash.

"It's not every day you get to do your daily commute with the next president of the United States of America," Biden told the crowd. Obama billed the trip "the beginning of another longer journey for our country."

"The weather's cold," Biden said. "A deeper chill of worry and concern have gripped the nation. . . . Millions of Americans have been knocked down. Our economy is struggling. We're a nation at war. Sometimes it's difficult to believe we'll see the spring again. But I tell you, spring is on the way with this new administration."

Obama told the thousands of well-wishers in Wilmington that "the time has come to pick ourselves up once again."

"It was here in Delaware that the Constitution was first ratified. . . . And now it falls to us to carry forward that American story to make it our own . . . to ensure that everyone in this country can make it if they try."

At the next stop, the War Memorial Plaza in Baltimore, Obama called on Americans to take up anew the principles of the nation's Founders, capping the inspirational message of the journey to Washington with a call for "a new declaration of independence."

"The trials we face are very different now, but they are severe in their own right," he told the crowd outside City Hall. "What's required is . . . an appeal not to our easy instincts, but to our better angels."

Fire officials estimated that 40,000 people had turned out for the rally.

When he was finished speaking, Obama waded through the crowd with his wife, Michelle, at his side as Secret Service agents followed closely. He shook hands, hugged people and flashed a bright smile before boarding the train for its final stop of the day: Washington.


Mark Silva in our Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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