WASHINGTON — With millions looking on, Barack Obama took the oath as 44th president of the United States, Jan. 20, and summoned the people to join in the struggle to remake America, reeling from two wars and a worsening economic crisis.
“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord,” Obama told the vast multiracial crowd that packed the Mall from the west steps of the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial.
There was an air of joy in the enormous swirling crowd on the bright, frigid January day. The nation, disfigured at birth by slavery, had now elected and sworn into office its first African American president.
Obama referred to that watershed in his inaugural speech, noting that “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”
Within hours, the new president moved swiftly to fulfill key campaign pledges. He issued an order suspending military prosecutions of Guantanamo detainees, initiating a review that is expected to lead to closure of the much-assailed prison.
And he ordered all federal agencies to block any pending regulations that the Bush White House tried to sneak through at the last minute.
In his speech, Obama scorned those who “seek only the pleasures of riches and fame” and assailed government policies that serve only the “narrow interests” of the few.
Instead, he paid homage to men and women who “struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life.”
They “toiled in sweatshops,” “endured the lash of the whip” and “plowed the hard earth” to build the nation’s prosperity, Obama said. In a line greeted with cheers, the president spoke of “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”
George W. Bush sat grimfaced nearby while Obama reminded the crowd of the wreckage from eight years of the Bush-Cheney regime: two wars, the economy weakened by “greed and irresponsibility,” homes lost, jobs eliminated, health care beyond the means of millions, schools in crisis and energy policies that “threaten our planet.”
He added, “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America.”
Alluding to his economic stimulus aimed at creating 4 million jobs, Obama said, “We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. … We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.”
He offered an open hand to nations around the world stating, “as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself … America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace … To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
Standing near the Washington Monument as Obama spoke was machinist James Bullock wearing his Coalition of Black Trade Unionists jacket. He had come with 62 other CBTU members from Hartford, Conn. “Look at how many young white people and Black people are here together supporting a Black president,” he told the World. “This is a chance for us to get rid of the nonsense that we are different from each other.”
He hailed Obama’s efforts to rebuild the economy. “Not everybody can go to college,” he said. “People can make a good living with a good manufacturing job.”
Peter Harnik of Arlington, Va., was wearing a green Obama button with the slogan, “Save the Planet.” He told the World, “I’ve never seen so many different kinds of people coming together on the Mall, all happy, all so optimistic.”
Harnik praised Obama’s speech as “unifying, an effort to get us beyond ‘for or against.’ He’s trying to build a coalition to moderate the human impact on the planet and at the same time protect our standard of living.”
Peter and Amy Handley had driven with their three children from Gaylord, Mich. “This is history,” Handley said. “I think Obama is our Lincoln and will change history.”
Mildred Taylor, first vice president of the Illinois Nurses Association, said she had come on a bus with 40 other members of her organization. “Today is so exciting,” she said. “Everyone is here to celebrate that we elected a Black man based not on his race but on what Barack Obama can do for our country.”
She added, “If we don’t do something, nobody is going to have health care except the rich. With universal health care, we can create more jobs because employers won’t have to cover health care costs for their employees. My organization represents both union and non-union nurses. Unions provide nurses a voice at the table. That is good both for the nurses and the patients.”
Consuela Lezama, leader of “I Am Immigrant America,” also rode on a bus from Chicago with 57 members of her group. “You can see how motivated people are after eight years of a government without conscience,” she said. “Tomorrow we’re going to march on the ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement) to request that they stop the raids and move forward with immigration reform.”
The new administration took another swift step on its first day in office, launching a new White House web site, WhiteHouse.gov, to “serve as a place for the president and his administration to connect with the rest of the nation and the world.”
“Millions of Americans have powered President Obama’s journey to the White House, many taking advantage of the Internet to play a role in shaping our country’s future,” the web site’s blog says. “WhiteHouse.gov is just the beginning of the new administration’s efforts to expand and deepen this online engagement.”