WASHINGTON — Before more than a million elated spectators and with the promise of a governmental sea change clearly spelled out in his inaugural speech, Barack Hussein Obama became the 44th president of the United States Tuesday on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
“Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed,” Obama, 47, said. “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
Aside from a thunderous 21-gun salute, the official transfer of power from outgoing President George W. Bush to Obama was peaceful and quick. Just before Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath to Obama, a woman in the crowd shouted out, “The moment!”
The National Mall was a sea of fluttering American flags waved by the crowd, which some reports estimated was as big as 2 million people. When the United States Marine Band played “Hail to the Chief” for the new president, the crowd erupted in a cheer of “Yes we can,” which rippled all the way from the Washington Monument to the Capitol steps.
In his inaugural speech, Obama, the nation’s first black president, acknowledged the historic importance of the day, recognized the current crisis and paid tribute to the American dream.
“This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and 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,” Obama said.
His speech looked to the past to find evidence of America’s capability of overcoming vast challenges, citing the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement as periods of turmoil which ultimately resulted in a stronger, more powerful nation. He also acknowledged America’s diversity, saying that the country’s “patchwork heritage” is a strength, not a weakness.
“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,” Obama said.
“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.”
It was a day of high spirits — jarred by sudden concern about the health of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a legendary Democrat who is suffering from brain cancer and was rushed to a hospital from a Senate luncheon after the swearing-in. “My prayers are with him and his family and [Kennedy’s wife] Vicki,” Obama said. Later, fellow Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said Kennedy was laughing and joking at the hospital and itching to get back to work.
On the inaugural parade route, Obama and his wife, Michelle, climbed out of the heavily armored presidential limousine and walked a few blocks along famed Pennsylvania Avenue, waving to adoring crowds under the watchful eyes of security agents.
In his 18-minute address, Obama also tried to inspire a sense of individual responsibility in Americans, urging them to draw upon the national traits of hard work, honesty, courage and curiosity to move beyond the current economic crisis.
“As much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies,” Obama said.
Obama thanked Bush for his service as president and never criticized him directly.
But he also repeatedly talked of the need to abandon current practices, and extended an invitation to other nations to establish a new relationship with the United States.
“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” Obama told a cheering crowd. “To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
In another shift with the outgoing administration’s domestic policy, Obama told the cheering crowd that he rejected “as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”
“Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake,” he said. “And so to all the 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 that we are ready to lead once more.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.