Obama inauguration

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Obama inauguration: Let the remaking of America begin today

Barack Hussein Obama today became 44th president of the United States of America in front of quite possibly the largest crowd of people ever in one place for a single political moment.

As many as two million people in Washington’s National Mall heard their new president give a 20-minute speech in which he acknowledged that the country was in the midst of crisis – with wars, a poor economy and a weak national confidence.

He promised the crowd that the problems would be met, but warned it would take time and a new type of politics, and that America would have to understand that “power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please”.

President Obama took the oath just after midday under a crisp and cloudless blue sky in front of the glistening cream dome of the Capitol, which was partly built by slaves.

The day, cold enough to freeze breath, had begun with millions of individual journeys by coach, train and on foot as the crowds began arriving before dawn. This was to be the end of the last eight years of Republican rule and of the problems in the US which, at any previous time in history, would have made the election of an African American president unthinkable.

For days people had been celebrating in parties all over town. The cheer as Obama swore his oath on Lincoln’s Bible rippled and roared all the way from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol, nearly two miles away.

But when Obama spoke it was immediately clear that the tone of this inauguration was grave, addressed as much to the hundreds of millions watching and listening around the world as to the shimmering sea of upturned faces in front of him.

“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood,” he said. “Our nation is at war, our economy is badly weakened ... homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our healthcare 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.”

There was criticism of George W. Bush’s policies in his comments on science and the environment. He vowed to “restore science to its rightful place” and made several references to climate change, acknowledging the threat to our planet and saying America would in future use “the sun and the winds and the soil” for energy.

On international affairs, he talked about the Muslim world, offering “a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect. America would leave Iraq “to its people” and make “hard-earned peace” in Afghanistan.

Obama’s serious tone and his acknowledgement of the economic hurricane blowing through America echoed Roosevelt’s speech at the time of the last serious global depression, in which a new president vowed “to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly”.

The endless crowd might have wanted to hear something more uplifting, but, for many, the day was a moment of real change after which nothing could be the same again.

As Obama headed back into the Capitol building at the end of the ceremony, clouds began rolling over what had until then been a pure blue sky. But there was one final cheer as the helicopter carrying George W. Bush rose over the gleaming dome of government and took the former president off to Texas – and out of public life forever.

© Guardian News & Media 2009
First published in The Guardian, 20/02/09


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