20 Jan, 2009

Moment of history as Obama sworn in

Barack Obama has taken the oath of office and been sworn in as America’s 44th president – and the country’s first African-American leader. More than one million people gathered in the National Mall in a wintry Washington DC, to see Mr Obama take the oath shortly after 1200 (1700 GMT). He used his inaugural address to vow to begin the work of “remaking America”. He was candid about the challenges facing the US, and said America was entering a “new era of responsibility”. He made reference to the scale of his achievement at being the first black American elected to the White House, in a remark that gathered one of the biggest cheers of the speech. “This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed… why 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.” But the new president faces serious challenges. America is gripped by uncertainty as the economy faces its worst crisis in decades. “The challenges we face are real,” Mr Obama said. “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.” Invoking the memory of the US’s Founding Fathers, Mr Obama said he would strive to rebuild his nation’s standing in the world, saying: “We are ready to lead once more.” Mr Obama must also handle wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and seek to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He spoke candidly of the economic crisis and foreign policy challenges facing the US, saying the US would “responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan”. The new president also addressed the world’s poor and the Muslim world, much of which angrily opposed the actions of the previous administration. From now on, Mr Obama said, the US would seek “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect”. And, closing his speech to wild cheers yet wearing a serious expression, Mr Obama told his country that while America faces new and different challenges, its people must now enter “a new era of responsibility”. Solemn vows On a day of unprecedented security in Washington, the inauguration ceremony began on the West Front Lawn of the US Capitol, where Congress sits, with an opening prayer asking for the protection and safety of the new president and vice-president. Mr Obama stood solemnly during the invocation by conservative Rick Warren, his eyes closed in the final moments before he took office. Aretha Franklin then sang the US national anthem against a backdrop of clear blue skies and a light wind. Thousands waved flags as the soul legend sang her version of the Star Spangled Banner to a rapturous reception. Joseph Biden, a veteran senator, was then sworn in as vice-president by the longest-serving member of the US Supreme Court. The focus then shifted to America’s first black president. Barack Obama placed his hand on a Bible used by Abraham Lincoln at his inauguration in 1861 and repeated the oath of office, promising to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”. He then began delivering his inaugural address – a 20-minute speech focussing on themes of responsibility, accountability, and the renewal of America and its role and relations with the world. Vast crowds Hundreds of thousands of visitors had arrived in Washington in the days before the inauguration, and vast numbers braved early-morning cold to secure a vantage point for the midday ceremony. Competition for tickets along the parade route was fierce, as was the scrum for standing room in the National Mall. Officials in Washington reported record numbers of passengers on the city’s subway network early on Tuesday, and police were forced to close a key entry point hours before event began because of overcrowding. Before the ceremony began, Michelle and Barack Obama attended a private church service at St John’s Episcopal Church alongside Vice-President-elect Joe Biden and his family. They then headed to the White House for coffee with outgoing President George W Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. The group – including Mr Cheney in a wheelchair after pulling a back muscle – then left for the US Capitol, lavishly prepared for the inaugural ceremony. Crowds in the National Mall will watch proceedings on huge video screens. At least two million people are expected, a record number for an inauguration event. They will be braving unusually cold weather, with temperatures of -1C expected. Wind chill would make it feel several degrees colder, forecasters said, urging people to guard against possible hypothermia and frostbite. Early on Tuesday, tens of thousands defied the pre-dawn cold to secure a good spot in the Mall when it opened at 0400 (0900 GMT) to those without tickets. There was a huge sense of excitement, a BBC reporter at the scene said, with people breaking out in cheers. The subway was as busy at 0500 as it would normally be at rush hour, but most seemed happy to battle through the crowds. “I’ve been queuing for hours, I don’t care how long I have to wait,” Washington resident Ronald Brisbon, 55, told the BBC. “Dr [Martin Luther] King said it might take 40 years. It’s been 45 years, I can wait another hour.” Security chiefs say they are prepared for all eventualities. Roads and bridges into Washington will be closed and thousands of police, soldiers and plainclothes agents are on the streets. Snipers will be in position along the parade route, while helicopters and fighter jets will patrol the skies. In Washington, homeland security officials said they were monitoring a “potential threat” of “uncertain credibility” on inauguration day. The feeling among the crowds in Washington, correspondents say, is that the changing of the presidential guard will be far more than the sum of its ceremonial parts. (credit: news.bbc.co.uk)

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