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Obama calls for renewal of American values

New President's sombre assessment of challenging path that lies ahead in restoring U.S. prosperity and global image fails to diminish exuberance of hundreds of thousands who pack National Mall

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

WASHINGTON — Hailed by a huge, tumultuous throng, Barack Obama, America's first African-American President sombrely told a hopeful nation and a watching world Tuesday that great efforts were needed to restore a grievously damaged economy and tarnished global image.

“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America,” Mr. Obama told more than a million people gathered to celebrate a historic moment. Many had walked for hours in bitter, pre-dawn darkness to bear witness to history. The multitude transformed inaugural pomp and ceremony into a far greater event; part outpouring of patriotism, part magical moment, as groups of total strangers met and mingled in a festival of celebration.

For many of the hundreds of thousands of black Americans in the crowd, Tuesday was also a long-overdue milestone in healing America's racial wounds.

Mr. Obama, 47, the son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother, paid tribute to the hard-won achievements of the civil-rights movement, noting he was “a man whose father, less than 60 years ago, might not have been served at a local restaurant.” In bright sunshine, before a sea of flags and booming chants of “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma” the Bush era ended with scattered boos and the peaceful passing of power in the world's sole remaining superpower.

Just after noon, Mr. Obama was sworn in before a cheering, boisterous throng that stretched from the steps of the Capitol more than three kilometres past the Washington Monument to the end of the Mall and the Lincoln Memorial. Michelle Obama held a 150-year-old Bible, covered in red leather and last used by Abraham Lincoln.

The new President, apparently determined to reduce soaring expectations and foster realization of the grim realities his administration faces, painted a stark picture of the challenges ahead.

“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood,” he said. “Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened. … 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.”

The message stilled the throng briefly but couldn't extinguish the exuberance. Cheers and rolling applause repeatedly punctuated the 181/2-minute inaugural speech.

Less than 30 minutes later, George W. Bush, 62, boarded a helicopter.

As the larger-than-life image of the deeply unpopular president making his departure appeared on huge Jumbotrons, catcalls and boos sounded from the crowd. By mid-afternoon, a big blue-and-white Boeing had taken Mr. Bush back to Texas. For the first time in eight years with Mr. Bush on board, the aircraft wasn't called Air Force One, because he was no longer president.

Mr. Obama had thanked his predecessor and given him a farewell hug.

In his often-sombre inaugural speech, Mr. Obama avoided crowd-rousing oratory or soaring rhetoric, preferring instead to underscore tough times with a relatively subdued call for a return to American bedrock values of hard work and tolerance. Yet he also found room to deliver a grim warning to America's enemies.

“Those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” It was Mr. Obama's most bellicose moment and it brought his predecessor, Mr. Bush, to his feet for a brief ovation.

During his speech, Mr. Obama made the first mistake of his presidency, although it was an understandable one. The newly sworn-in President mentioned that “44 Americans have now taken the presidential oath.” While there have been 44 presidential administrations, there have been only 43 presidents; Grover Cleveland served two nonconsecutive terms in the late 1800s.

Mostly, Mr. Obama offered a new spirit of reconciliation.

“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” said the 44th President, whose father was a Kenyan Muslim.

He also warned the leaders of the world's nastiest regimes – without mentioning any of them by name – that they were on the “wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” But the new President's focus was domestic – and he painted a dark picture of an economy in desperate straits.

“Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age,” he said.

More than 11 million Americans are jobless, housing foreclosures have skyrocketed, stock markets continue to spiral downward.

Only a few in the crowd offered cautionary notes, warning that Mr. Obama needed to be held to account.

Medea Benjamin, one of the foremost activists against the Iraq war and founder of Code Pink, a women's peace group, said she was worried Mr. Obama might fail to make good on his promises to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq.

“We want them out of Afghanistan, too,” she said. “We want Obama to keep his promises about closing Guantanamo as well.”

An otherwise joyful day was marred by the collapse of Senator Edward Kennedy, 76, a key backer of Mr. Obama who made a moving vow last summer at the Democrats' Denver nominating convention that he would survive brain cancer long enough to witness the inauguration.

At the luncheon with congressional leaders where Mr. Kennedy fell ill after the inauguration, Mr. Obama served notice that he expected less infighting and a higher tone than the nasty, partisan battling that has stymied efforts for years on a broad range of vital issues from immigration to health care to reforming social security.

Ordinary Americans are “demonstrating their readiness to answer history's call and to step up, and give back, and take responsibility for serving the common purpose of remaking our nation,” he told lawmakers. “We have to do the same.”

The world reacted with joy Tuesday to the ceremony in Washington. Thousands danced Tuesday in the Kenyan village where Mr. Obama's father was born and ecstatic revellers toasted him at parties worldwide as the first African American U.S. president took office, Agence France-Presse reported.

At the Canadian embassy, flanking the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route, hundreds gathered for what was billed as a “tailgate” party where beaver tails and free beer were on offer. Mounties were flown in to add colour.

The two-hour inaugural parade, replete with dozens of high-school bands, re-enactors of a black Civil War regiment, and Second World War veterans, included more than 10,000 participants from all 50 states.

The President and his wife delighted crowds jammed atop office buildings and lining the route 10 deep by alighting from their tank-like limousine and walking a few blocks hand in hand.

They watched most of the parade from a reviewing stand, fronted with bulletproof glass, after collecting their daughters, Malia and Sasha, from the White House.

Later, the new first couple made the rounds of 10 glittering inaugural balls, mostly attended by well-heeled Democrats who had paid steep prices.

For the million-plus ordinary people who filled the sprawling National Mall in downtown Washington, it was a day to celebrate Mr. Obama's presidency and – for some – to cheer the departure of one of America's least-loved presidents. The crowd booed lustily as they watched giant TV screens showing Mr. Bush arriving at the swearing-in ceremony. A few hurled abuse.

“Send him to jail,” screamed a woman at the foot of the Washington Monument.

Tuesday's ceremonies ended a four-day celebration that began with a whistle-stop train turn bringing the Obamas to Washington.

Inauguration day included a church service at St. John's Episcopal Church, and a traditional coffee at the White House including both the new and old presidents and vice-presidents and their spouses.

Today, Mr. Obama is expected to order the Joint Chiefs of Staff to speed up the pullout of troops from Iraq and announce that the prison for terrorist suspects at the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will be closed.

It will be the first day of a new administration and the first change in the Oval Office since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It will also mark the extraordinary political rise of Mr. Obama, who barely two years ago was a little-known senator and ex-law professor from Illinois, with almost no legislative record and no experience running anything bigger than a community centre.

With reports from Barrie McKenna and AP

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