The moment of reckoning edged ever closer for Barack Obama Sunday as the president-elect entered the final 48 hours before he becomes the 44th president of the United States.
The event of the day was a gala afternoon concert at the Lincoln Memorial attended by Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden and witnessed by hundreds of thousands of joyful supporters and curiousity-seekers, who waited for as long as six hours to jam the long stretch from the Memorial to the Washington Monument and then beyond toward the Capitol.
Flashbulbs lit a gray winter sky as a parade of musical stars and celebrities paid homage to an event that is being viewed as nothing short of a turning point in American history. The instantly iconic moment: Bruce Springsteen singing "The Rising" backed by a red-robed gospel choir.
James Taylor, Garth Brooks and Beyonce were just a few of the musical superstars. Jamie Foxx gave a shout-out to Chicago ("3-1-2!") and twice urged: "Chi-town, stand up!" The second time, the president-elect did just that, later joined by Michelle Obama. When Springsteen and American folk music icon Pete Seeger closed the show with Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," the president-to-be sang along.
"In the course of our history, only a handful of generations have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now," Obama told the enormous crowd. "I won't pretend that meeting any one of these challenges will be easy. It will take more than a month or a year, and it will likely take many. Along the way there will be setbacks and false starts and days that test our fundamental resolve as a nation.
"But despite all of this — despite the enormity of the task that lies ahead — I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure — that the dream of our founders will live on in our time."
The starpower focused on official Washington was unprecedented. "The best of our nation. We've elected the best. It was a great American moment," Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin said of the concert.
But even in the earlier, quieter hours of Sunday morning, the remarkable inaugural energy that has transfixed the nation’s capital was already at work — an energy and excitement and anxiety that has shattered the daily routines of Washingtonians through unprecedented street and bridge closures and suffocating security measures. In simple terms, Washington has never experienced a weekend quite like this.
Obama himself appeared in a taped interview on CNN's "State of the Union," telling host John King that the Inauguration represented a historic moment in American race relations.
"If you think about the journey that this country has made, then it can't help but stir your heart," Obama said. "The notion that I now will be standing there and sworn in as the 44th president, I think, is something that hopefully our children will take for granted, but something that our grandparents are still stunned by."
In practically the same breath, however, Obama told King that Washington's festive mood would quickly give way to the hard realities of governing.
"We're going to have a tough year in 2009," Obama acknowledged. "The good news is we're getting a consensus around what needs to be done. We've got to have a bold, aggressive reinvestment and recovery package."
If that sounds a little dire amidst pre-Inauguration celebrations, Obama said Americans should expect more of that kind of talk.
“This is going to be a general principle of governing: no spin, play it straight, describe to the American people the state that we're in and then provide them and Congress a sense of direction," he said.
Obama aides also flooded the talk shows, while Obma and Biden began the day by laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery amid temperatures that finally crept above the freezing mark after three days of frigid cold.
Obama and his family later attended services at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church — a development that will be closely analyzed by a host of D.C.-area congregations that have been open in their desire to see the new First Family join their flock.
The congregation at the predominately black church burst into applause after the children’s choir concluded a reading and a little boy stepped to the microphone and said: "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last."
Pastor Derrick Harkins urged Obama to follow the example of the biblical Queen Esther and turn away from "the flowery bed of ease" and champion the cause of justice and the downtrodden. Harkins told the next president to "go forward in prayerfulness and faithfulness."
The Obama and Biden families arrived in Washington Saturday evening after a 137-mile whistle-stop train ride from Philadelphia.
On the morning shows, incoming White House officials said the final preparations were going apace for Tuesday’s swearing-in, including final drafts of Obama’s inaugural address.
Soon-to-be White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, on “Fox News Sunday,” said his boss has a version of the address down on paper and that it stresses responsibility and openness — ideas Obama emphasized along the train route Saturday.
Gibbs told host Chris Wallace that the inauguration would help heighten a sense of American renewal — but cautioned not to expect overly rosy language from Obama.
"I think the themes you'll hear on Tuesday at noon will be very familiar to people who watched the campaign," Gibbs said. "But they'll be heavily infused with this notion of responsibility, getting the country back on track."
There were also previews of the policy and personnel battles the Obama-Biden team will have to wage as soon as they take office.
On CNN, King pressed Obama about skepticism regarding his nominee for treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, who has come under criticism — notably, from the liberal New York Times editorial board — for his past failure to pay taxes.
"The New York Times editorial page has a lot of opinions, as does the Wall Street Journal editorial page," Obama said. "Some of them are better than others."
The bottom line, Obama said, was that Geithner's tax problems should not slow his appointment to lead the economic recovery effort — a program the president-elect described in terms of short-term economic stimulus and long-term deficit reduction.
"Short term, the most important thing is to put people back to work," Obama said. "But what we also have to recognize is, is that the deficit levels I'm inheriting — over a trillion dollars coming out of last year — that that is unsustainable."
That's a line Obama's chief of staff-designate, Rahm Emanuel, took up on NBC's “Meet the Press,” pointing to military and pro-business spending as areas where the government could make significant cuts.
"In the defense area, on an annual basis, we have about $300 billion in cost overruns. That must be addressed," Emanuel said. "The area of subsidies to corporate America, that must be addressed. And then, also, dealing with the bigger obligation of health care costs and what they have done to the federal budget."
Emanuel took aim at criticism of the incoming administration's recovery proposals, defending increased education spending from Republican complaints that he called "ironic."
"I find it ironic, since one of the questions, and the criticism about the deficit spending, is coming from people who actually, in a period of time in the lasteight years, were responsible for policies that left America farther behind, in the sense of deep, deep debt," Emanuel said.
Obama's number one spokesman on the Sunday shows was Lawrence Summers, the soon-to-be-head of the National Economic Council who served as Treasury secretary during the Clinton administration.
Summers joined Obama and Emanuel in their grim predictions for 2009, but attempted to reassure viewers that the administration's stimulus package would work, and that the new economic team would use the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program more effectively.
"There's going to be a very different level of rigor in the evaluation of institutions, in the plans that are designed, in the expectations for institutions," Summers said on CBS’s “Face The Nation.” "The focus isn't going to be on the needs of banks. It's going to be on the needs of the economy for credit, whether it's for housing, to prevent foreclosures, whether it's for automobile loans, consumer credit, small business, municipalities, the focus is going to be on credit."
Not a man known for his sunny disposition, Summers expressed optimism that the swearing in of a new administration would help buck up Americans' economic prospects.
"Psychology is a lot of this, and I think the sense of a new leader with a clear plan, with a commitment to being aggressive, to recognizing that government's got to support the market system at a moment like this, I think that's got to add to confidence," Summers argued.
Mike Allen contributed to this story.