WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands of protesters marched on the U.S. Capitol on Saturday, airing a wide range of grievances rooted in a shared sentiment: seething anger at President Obama and his far-reaching agenda.
Led by a fife and drum corps in period costumes, the demonstrators filled Pennsylvania Avenue and swarmed the Capitol grounds with a sea of bobbing placards and hand-lettered signs that spelled out a catalog of dissent.
There were antiabortion protesters and term-limit advocates. Critics of financial bailouts and the federal investigation into CIA interrogation techniques. Marchers who were worried about rekindling inflation and upset about the soaring national debt. Pickets opposed to Obama's healthcare reform plan and challenging the legitimacy of his election.
"Is This Russia?" one sign said. "Traitors Terrorists Run Our Government," read another. "Don't blame me. I voted for The 'American,' " a third stated.
The protest -- touted by organizers as the largest-ever outpouring of political conservatives -- was organized by a loose-knit coalition of anti-tax, small-government proponents, and widely promoted by sympathetic voices in the blogosphere and on TV and talk radio. Park police declined to provide an official crowd estimate.
The rally was embraced, after some hesitation, by congressional Republicans, some of whom were leery of associating with the more incendiary elements of Obama's opposition.
"The coming weeks and months may well set the course for this nation for a generation," said Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, the No. 3 GOP House leader, voicing the apocalyptic tone that rang through much of the day's rhetoric. "How we as conservatives respond to these challenges could determine whether America retains her place in the world as a beacon of freedom, or whether we slip into the abyss that has swallowed much of Europe in an avalanche of socialism."
If there was a unifying theme, it was the notion that the federal government, starting with the financial bailout last fall and continuing with Obama's vast economic stimulus plan, has grown too big, too costly and too intrusive.
"I have five children, and I worry about their future and the country we're going to leave them," said Michele Meyer, 59, of nearby Vienna, Va., who marched with a small blue-and-white sign that read: "Bury ObamaCare with Kennedy" -- a reference to the late Massachusetts senator and longtime champion of universal healthcare.
The president faced a much friendlier crowd when he traveled to Minneapolis on Saturday. An enthusiastic rally of 15,000 cheered and chanted, "Yes we can!" as Obama called for congressional passage of his healthcare overhaul. In addition, the president used his weekend radio address to discuss the topic, and plans to press his case in an interview on CBS' "60 Minutes" tonight.
The healthcare overhaul, a centerpiece of Obama's agenda and one of the most contentious issues facing Congress, was a central focus of the rambunctious crowd. From a small stage near the Capitol steps, one speaker after another condemned the president's plan as a liberal (some said socialist, others collectivist) power grab that would drive up costs, undermine care, and eventually bankrupt the country.
"We must stop this government takeover of healthcare and we must force the president and Congress to fix what's broken instead of replacing what's right," said Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. "Friends, this is a crucial battle for the heart and soul of America -- for freedom itself."
Less than eight months ago, Obama stood at the Capitol to take the oath of office. He immediately embarked on the most expansive set of presidential initiatives since the New Deal, responding to the worst economic meltdown since the Depression.
The backlash, however, has been fierce. It manifested itself here on a cool, gray Saturday, in both the mass of demonstrators stretching far down the Washington Mall and the reaction -- a lusty chorus of boos -- at the mere mention of Obama's name.
Pointing toward the Capitol, its dome a majestic backdrop, former Republican House Leader Dick Armey alluded to the oath that Obama took Jan. 20. "He pledged a commitment of fidelity to the United States Constitution," Armey said.
"He lied!" the crowd chanted back. "He lied! He lied!"
Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina breached congressional protocol when he hollered, "You lie!" Wednesday night during Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress, drawing condemnation from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
However, Wilson was a hero to many in Saturday's crowd. People wore "Joe Wilson for president" stickers and waved signs saying, "Joe Wilson was right" and "We need more Joe Wilsons."
"I believe he lies about everything," Dottie Dupree, 38, an off-duty law officer from Maryland, said of Obama.
"I came out today because he needs to hear from people like us, exercising our 1st Amendment rights."
Times staff writer Peter Nicholas contributed to this report from Minneapolis.