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New President Barack Obama calls for hope amid cold reality

The first African American president issues a somber call for the return of what he calls traditional American virtues of hard work, fair play, tolerance and sacrifice for the common good.

January 21, 2009|Christi Parsons and Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — Barack Hussein Obama took his place as the 44th president of the United States under a bright January sky on Tuesday, defining the problems the nation now faces in unsparing terms and exhorting Americans to respond by taking greater responsibility for themselves, the country and the world.

Standing on the West Front of the Capitol as the first African American to be sworn in as president, Obama celebrated that historic achievement, noting 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 the heart of Obama's first address to the nation as its president was a rejection of the policies and values of his immediate predecessors and a somber call for the return of what he called the traditional American virtues of hard work, fair play, tolerance and sacrifice for the common good.

In moments of crisis, "America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents," he said.

"So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans."

Invoking the names and values of the Founding Fathers is commonplace in presidential speeches, but in Obama's case the device seemed intended to make a larger point: The change he hopes to bring about will require even his supporters to accept things they don't want to accept, work with opponents they've long demonized and alter long-ingrained lifestyles.

Americans as a whole must adopt a new, more self-denying way of life with little room for "those who prefer leisure over work or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame," he said.

In a passage that echoed Roosevelt's first inaugural, Obama said, "Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. 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."

If the speech was exceptionally somber and included relatively few lines designed to draw roars of approval from the enormous crowd, the day nonetheless resounded with jubilation.

More than a million people flocked to the National Mall to take part in the event, spilling outward from the gleaming white Capitol steps toward the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial more than a mile away.

Choirs sang. Some of the world's finest musicians -- including classical violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, along with soul singer Aretha Franklin -- performed. High school bands paraded. And tears streamed down faces, weathered and smooth alike, here and around the globe, as the son of a white American and a black African ascended to his place in history.

Listeners listened, mesmerized as the speech rolled across the Mall from a sound system that took two or three seconds to get to the farthest reaches of the crowd. The echo meant that the field was never quiet, even when Obama paused, as though the words of the day couldn't be contained in a single moment or place.

One shadow was cast on the day, during the luncheon for the new president hosted in the Capitol's Statuary Hall by House and Senate leaders: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) suffered a seizure and was taken to a hospital.

Kennedy has brain cancer, but an aide said later that he was awake, talking with family members and feeling well.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), 91, the Senate's oldest member, was sitting near Kennedy and became visibly upset. He was taken from the lunch but is fine, according to an aide.

As is traditional, President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush were whisked away by helicopter immediately after the inaugural ceremony and headed for their home state of Texas after a private farewell to staff at nearby Andrews Air Force Base.

And almost at once, the wheels of the new administration began to turn.

In the afternoon, new White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, as expected, put a hold on all regulations the Bush administration had been drafting, pending a review by the new team. President Obama is expected to begin issuing his own administrative measures later this week.

Obama made the appointment of his Cabinet his first official act, and the Senate approved several members before the day was over, though Senate Republicans delayed others.

Secretary of State nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton had been expected to win approval Tuesday, but Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) held that vote up for a day for further questioning about her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and his charitable foundation's foreign donors.

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