Barack Hussein Obama became the 44th president of the United States Tuesday in a history-shattering moment that put an African-American in the nation’s highest office for the first time in the country’s history.
As more than a million people lined the National Mall and jammed the West Front of the Capitol in a jubilant but frigid capital, Obama, 47, repeated the 35-word presidential oath just minutes after noon – capping an electrifying campaign that brought this improbable president to the Oval Office at a time of economic crisis at home and war abroad.
Former Delaware Sen. Joe Biden was sworn in as the 47th vice president - a role in which he plans to be the "last person in the room" when Obama makes an important decision.
Obama's nearly 19-minute inaugural address mixed eloquent imagery and a stark call to arms during a dangerous time - and also a tribute to the American spirit of slow but inexorable progress. "This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed - why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath," Obama said.
“Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace,” he began. “Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, 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 forbearers, and true to our founding documents.
“So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.”
What is required, the new president told the nation, 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, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
“This is the price and the promise of citizenship.”
It was a day unlike any other in Washington’s memory. Even in pre-dawn darkness, the city was abuzz with anticipation as hundreds of thousands made their way toward Capitol Hill - a trek turned into the adventure of a lifetime by smothering security precautions that largely shut down access to official Washington. The Metro system was badly snarled after a 68-year-old woman fell on the tracks, closing several downtown stations.
Thousands of flashes lit up the sky from the National Mall as many in the already massive crowd tried to capture the image of the sun coming up over the Capitol. Dignitaries – from former presidents to an array of foreign diplomats – played tourist. For all, it was a moment at once unthinkable and impossible to forget. Aretha Franklin offered a prelude to Obama's swearing-in with a thunderous version of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee."
A city that prides itself on having seen and experienced just about everything had almost a palpable sense of stepping into the future – a new administration faced with daunting problems at virtually every turn, but which represents a cultural earthquake unimaginable just a generation ago.
Incoming White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” said the president-elect was “calm” early Tuesday morning and that he was “excited and anxious to get to work.” As for the rest of the Obama team, Gibbs said the magnitude of what they were about to experience was sinking in. “I think it’ll hit us all sometime today I’m not sure when,” he said.
The general anxiousness of the day became briefly apparent when Supreme Court Justice John Roberts seemed to confuse Obama by stumbling over one phrase of the presidential oath. The oath includes the phrase "that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States" but Roberts didn't say "faithfully" until after saying "president of the United States." Obama paused, and Roberts repeated the correct phrase - then Obama repeated Roberts' initial mistake.
Tuesday morning was spent honoring inaugural traditions. Obama and Biden began the day with a customary morning service at St. John's Episcopal Church, across Lafayette Park from the White House.
“The problems are mighty and the solutions are not simple,” said the service's keynote speaker, Bishop T.D. Jakes, senior pastor at Potter’s house in Dallas. "And everywhere you turn there will be a critic waiting to attack every decision that you make. But you are all fired up, sir, and you are ready to go. And this nation goes with you. God goes with you."
Also following tradition, Obama and his wife, Michelle, had coffee at the White House with President Bush and his wife, Laura, followed by a shared ride to the Capitol for the actual transfer of power. Michelle Obama brought a gift for the outgoing first lady in a white box decorated with a red ribbon. Inside was a pen engraved with Tuesday's date and a leather-bound journal inscribed with the following quote: "There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. Yet that will be the beginning,"
Biden and his wife, Jill, also visited the White House. On Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney pulled a muscle in his back, leaving him in a wheelchair for the inauguration.
The new president then had lunch on Capitol Hill - a lunch marred by Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy being taken from the room after suffering an apparent seizure. West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd also was taken from the luncheon suffering from undetermined medical problems. By day''s end, Byrd aides said he was doing fine and Kennedy appeared to be recovering at a local hospital.
Obama left the Capitol shortly after 3 p.m. to take part in the inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue toward his new home, taking time to walk part of the route with his wife.
For the Bushes, there was different kind of journey to make. After the swearing-in ceremony, they took a helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base, where the former president made private remarks inside a hangar.
The Bushes then flew to Midland, Texas, on a presidential aircraft that will be called Special Air Mission 28000 instead of Air Force One because Bush will no longer be president.
In Washington, the evening was to be filled with 10 inaugural balls – and countless private events – that will cap a four-day period in which Washington has been taken over by celebrities, dignitaries and ordinary Americans of every hue who simply thought they would never live to see such a day.
Wednesday will bring cold, hard reality. Obama and his team face a transcendent economic crisis. He has promised immediate action to begin drawing down troops from Iraq and building up U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He must deal immediately with a fragile ceasefire between Hamas and Israeli forces in Gaza. He must form a government – and though many of his Cabinet appointees will be confirmed Tuesday or in coming days, some still face potential hurdles, such as Treasury Secretary-nominee Timothy Geithner.
For one last day, however, the man who styled his unlikely presidential quest on the audacity of hope was allowed to bask in the glow of past triumphs and his hopes for the future.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said President Bush, following the practices of past presidents, left Obam a note in the top drawer of his desk in the Oval Office. The note speaks of a “fabulous new chapter" in the United States, Perino said – and wishes Obama well.