Huge crowds, unprecedented in U.S. history, gathered in Washington on Tuesday, to celebrate and welcome President Barack Obama to the White House. Pre-inaugural estimates of up to 3 million participants seemed on mark, with newspapers like the Washington Post calculating 2 million people on the Mall.
With many participants both with and without tickets unable to gain entry, the overall numbers are likely higher. “I had tickets and couldn’t get in,” said a New York City teacher whose story was echoed by many others.” We got here early but it was just too big.” Her family managed to watch President Obama’s speech at Union Station.
“You have to conceptualize this as a populist inauguration,” said political analyst, University of Maryland professor and long-time activist Ron Walters to the Washington Afro-American. “You have people coming here from all over the world; people coming from across the country – many bunking in with relatives – just because they want to be a part of history.”
As the millions gathered to observe the festivities, Wall Street stocks tumbled in the worst Inaugural Day plunge in a century, accenting the cloudy economic horizon and giving emphasis to President Obama’s people-oriented themes. The stock market plunged over 332 points or 4 percent, wiping out January gains amid growing fears of bank instability.
The president’s speech seemed to anticipate these problems and was a continuation of themes struck during the presidential campaign. Obama said, “Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.”
Moments later, tracing the sacrifice of previous generations, he continued, “For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.”
Even the poet Elizabeth Alexander, says The New York Times, speaking after the president, highlighted working class themes: “Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.”
Still the event and speeches, with these touches and emphasis, spoke broadly to the nation about the economic challenges ahead and marked a sharp break with policies of the Bush administration and even a direct rebuke, as President Obama made particular reference to not sacrificing ideals for expediency in foreign policy. ‘We reject as false the choice as between our safety and our ideals,’ he said.
After the swearing-in Obama attended a traditional luncheon hosted by Congress, followed by a legislative session where several Cabinet appointments were approved. The huge outpouring of citizens from all over the country for the inaugural ceremony is sure to help hasten the approval of the president’s legislative agenda. According to press reports the first act of the new administration was to order a halt, pending further review, of all of former President Bush’s pending presidential regulations.
The inaugural parade extended into the afternoon, featuring a trade union float, representing the AFL-CIO, Change to Win and the teachers union, the first in many years at an inaugural. Over 200 workers marched and called for passing the Employee Free Choice Act.
The multicultural event, among many others, featured Irish musicians, a mariachi band, and a contingent of local Washingtonian youth playing local “go-go” music, a musical form particular to D.C.
President Obama’s is to begin his day Wednesday with a prayer service followed by meetings with economic advisers and military leaders on Iraq and Afghanistan.
The president and first lady, in a promise to make government more accessible, are also to host a White House open house Wednesday.
Obama is also expected to act quickly to order the closing of the Guantanamo Bay military camp holding terror suspects, rescind Bush’s ban on funding programs that support abortion and stem cell research.