Barack Hussein Obama declared the start of "a new era of responsibility" as he was sworn in yesterday to become the 44th president of the United States before more than 1 million cheering Americans who traveled from around the country to witness history.
The son of a black Kenyan father and white Kansan mother, Obama characterized his swearing-in as "a moment that will define a generation." Standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, multitudes spread out before him on the National Mall, Obama used his inaugural address to offer both a stinging rebuke of "the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long" and a soaring but sober vision of the challenges, and victories, that lie ahead.
"Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed," Obama said. "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."
Daunting challenges lie ahead
Obama took the oath of office against a backdrop of economic meltdown, global anxiety, two U.S.-led wars and stratospheric expectations that he will right the ship of state.
After winning a sweeping electoral victory in November on a promise of hope and change, Obama signaled yesterday that the daunting challenges facing the nation won't be easily or quickly resolved, nor will the challenges lessen his resolve.
"Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans," he said. "Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage."
The inauguration marked the pinnacle of a stunning political journey in which a 47-year-old, one-term U.S. senator raised mostly by his single mother ascended to the most powerful post in the world as the nation's first African-American president.
Marking our 'patchwork heritage'
Obama acknowledged the historic significance of his achievement - that "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath" - but throughout his address emphasized unity, diversity and the strength of "our patchwork heritage" over his singular story.
Across the nation and around the world, all eyes were on Obama and the extraordinary crowd that came to witness his swearing-in ceremony. Waves of people stretched nearly 2 miles along the wide expanse of the National Mall, from the Capitol, whose builders included slaves, all the way to the Washington Monument, built to honor the achievements of the nation's first president, himself a slaveholder.
Thousands more gathered, riveted, in front of jumbo screens in Harlem and Times Square; at movie theaters in Huntington and Sag Harbor; in school gyms, churches and college campuses. It was a day and an event many Americans wanted to be a part of.
"I feel blessed to be here to see this happening, to see the effects of history, to see it all come to pass," said Chester Gibson, 59, of Patchogue, who watched from the Faith Baptist Church in Coram. "I see God's hands all over this."
At precisely noon, as Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and others performed a John Williams composition, "Air and Simple Gifts," the mantle of power changed from George W. Bush to Obama. Shortly afterward, Obama lay his hand on the burgundy velvet-bound Bible used at the first inauguration of another former Illinois lawmaker, Abraham Lincoln, and held by his wife, Michelle. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administered the presidential oath as both men briefly stumbled on the words.
Time to 'reaffirm our enduring spirit'
Then, a confident Obama turned to face the sea of expectant faces and began speaking in ringing tones.
"On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics," he said. "The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit, to choose our better history, to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation - the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."
As her father spoke, Malia Obama, 10, lifted a digital camera to snap his picture.
Though Obama spoke strongly in his speech about the dangers posed by "a far-reaching network of violence and hatred," he also reached out to the rest of the world, noting that not just military might, but "sturdy alliances" promote freedom and bring peace.
"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history," he said, "but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
The Rev. Rick Warren, whose opposition to same-sex marriage angered Obama's gay supporters, delivered the invocation, as Obama sat behind him, at times with his eyes closed.
A day brimming with festivities
The Obamas began their day at a church service; before the inauguration, following tradition, they had coffee at the White House with the Bushes. Less than half an hour after the inaugural ceremony ended, the Bushes were aboard a helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base, en route to their home in Texas.
The swearing-in itself marked just one event in a day of festivities. At a luncheon in the Capitol, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is battling a brain tumor, suffered an apparent seizure and was rushed in an ambulance to Washington Hospital Center. By evening, hospital officials said he was conscious and communicative.
After the luncheon, the inaugural parade briefly brought the Obamas out of their armored Cadillac to walk hand in hand twice. Following the parade, the couple planned to attend 10 official inaugural balls. And this morning, President Obama reports to work to begin the weighty task of governing, as he phrased it, "amidst gathering clouds and raging storms."
"Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter," he said, to close his speech. "And with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom, and delivered it safely to future generations."
With staff writer Carol Polsky and AP