Barack Obama’s date with history was just hours away Tuesday morning as a transfixed nation and a frigid but jubilant capital readied to watch him become the 44th president of the United States – and the first African-American to hold the nation’s highest office.
Even in pre-dawn darkness, the city was abuzz with anticipation as hundreds of thousands began making 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. 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.
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 unthinkable just a generation ago.
Just before the stroke of noon, Obama will take the oath of office in one of the nation’s oldest and most venerated rituals and then outline his vision for the country in an inaugural address aides have promised will be uplifting but also direct in its acknowledgement of the dangers the face the country.
"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 said Sunday at the concert at the Lincoln Memorial. "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."
Incoming White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” said the president-elect was “calm” 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.
Tuesday morning was spent honoring inaugural traditions. Obama and Vice President-elect Joe 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 from Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston. "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, were invited to the White House for coffee with President Bush and his wife, Laura, followed by a shared ride to the Capitol for the actual transfer of power. On Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney pulled a muscle in his back, leaving him in a wheelchair for the inauguration.
Minutes before noon, Obama will step forward on the West Front of the Capitol to lay his left hand on the same Bible that President Lincoln used at his first inauguration in 1861. The 35-word oath of office, administered by Chief Justice John Roberts, has been uttered by every president since George Washington.
The new president will then have lunch and later leave the Capitol to take part in the inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue toward his new home. After the swearing-in ceremony, Bush will takea helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base, where he'll make private remarks inside a hangar.
The Bushes then will fly 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 will 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 improbable 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 Obama 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.