On the morning of Jan. 20, at 8:45 a.m., Barack Obama left the historic guest quarters at Blair House, across the street from the White House, and climbed into the back seat of a black Cadillac limousine—an armoured personnel carrier that the Secret Service have dubbed “the Beast.” He wore a black suit and red tie, and was accompanied by his wife Michelle, clad in a coat and dress of Swiss-wool lace in a cheerful, non-partisan yellow.
The Obamas headed for the traditional inaugural church service at St. John’s Episcopal Church, where they were joined by family members and the soon-to-be vice-presidential couple, Joe and Jill Biden. The choir sang This Little Light of Mine. A guest pastor from Dallas, T.D. Jakes, preached that “God always sends the best men into the worst times.” Later, Jakes turned directly to Obama, and quoting his own 14-year-old son, he added, “May the force be with you.”
And it was, at least for a day. After a private farewell coffee at the U.S. Capitol with congressional leaders and departing president George W. Bush, vice-president Dick Cheney, and their wives, the Obamas emerged beneath an icy but cheerfully blue sky onto the west steps of the Capitol and faced a crowd almost two million strong, some of whom had been camping, shivering, and chanting for hours, in anticipation of the moment many could scarcely believe had arrived.
Squeals and shouts of joy broke out as Obama placed his hand on the red-velvet-covered Bible used by Abraham Lincoln at his first inauguration in 1861. And then came the only glitch of the day—from John Roberts, the usually smooth chief justice of the Supreme Court. As he prompted Obama, Roberts misplaced the word “faithfully” in the oath of office that is spelled out in the Constitution: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Roberts’s mistake of putting the “faithfully” after “United States,” which Obama dutifully repeated, raised chatter among conspiracy theorists that perhaps Obama was not actually President after all. (Others suspected retribution for the fact that Obama had voted against Roberts’s confirmation in the Senate.)
But the crowd had no doubt who the new President was. They had cheered as Aretha Franklin, in a rhinestone-studded bow hat, sang My Country ’Tis of Thee, and fell silent during a haunting performance by a quartet that included violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Poet Elizabeth Alexander read “Praise Song for the Day,” which included a line that captured the emotional undercurrent of the day: “Say it plain: that many have died for this day.”
Obama’s long-anticipated inaugural address was a speech geared more for the moment than for the history books. Perhaps its most memorable lines were not ones that will be quoted decades from now, but which resonated with Americans dealing with an economic crisis that has claimed millions of jobs, and every day brings more lost jobs, home foreclosures, and lost health care coverage. “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: they will be met,” Obama said. “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
Obama’s speech hit themes familiar from his campaign, such as bipartisanship and efficient and open government. “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply,” he said. “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.”
He sent a message of new friendship to nations around the world. “To all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.” And, he added, “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
The new President aimed a few thinly veiled barbs at the Bush administration’s policies. “Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and Communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.” And in a reference to Bush’s policies in the war on terror, he said, “As for our common defence, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”
Despite the Christian prayers that opened and closed the ceremony, Obama acknowledged America as a “nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth. And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”
Obama did not refer to himself as the first African-American president, but he did as “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant,” and who could “now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” Jason St-Fleur, a 26-year-old African-American attorney from Miami, could barely find words for his emotions as he watched Obama’s transformation into President. “This is just unbelievable. I am ecstatic. It’s overwhelming. It’s unbelievable,” said St-Fleur, an immigrant from Haiti. “This is the day that the Lord has made.” As for the speech, “It was awesome. It was inclusive of all of us.”
Following the inauguration, the Obamas and the Bidens graciously bid farewell to the Bushes and the Cheneys. But after the former president and vice-president were escorted into helicopters, there were some partisan sentiments among the crowd watching on JumboTron screens on the National Mall as their aircraft hovered above the capital. Washingtonian Anne Seymour, who had volunteered for the Obama campaign in six states and arrived at the inauguration plastered in Obama buttons and Obama hat, gleefully took pictures of the Bush-Cheney departure. “I’m feeling really good now that I can say ‘Bye-bye! Don’t call us!’ ”
Seymour said she was moved by the call to renewal and determination in Obama’s speech. “When he said ‘pick yourself up and brush yourself off’—that’s what we all have to do. We have to face the future together,” said Seymour, who was hosting 20 guests from two countries and six states in her home. “It’s the worst economy and two wars going on, but as a people we are going to be able to rock this—with him as our fearless leader.”