On the steps of the nation’s Capitol, just a short distance from where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, using the same bible Abraham Lincoln did for his inauguration, with the country in dire conditions similar to when FDR took office, Barack Obama was officially sworn in as the 44th president of the United States of America on in Tuesday afternoon (January 20).
The moment crystallized the former U.S. senator’s historic rise to become the first African-American to hold the country’s highest office. Just over four years ago, Obama introduced himself to the nation with his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Covention in Boston. His oratory skill wowed the audience then and continued to do so throughout his two-year campaign for the presidency. So he can be forgiven if the usually cool Chicago politician stepped on Chief Justice John Roberts’ line at the beginning of the oath, and seemed to flub another line when Roberts accidentally rearranged the words.
But then President Obama powered through a soaring inaugural address. (Read Obama’s entire speech as prepared here .) He spoke swiftly, for approximately 20 minutes, and touched on the challenges looming over the country — the economy, the current wars — while also invoking the legacy of King.
As the son of a Kenyan immigrant, Obama placed his presidency in proper context.
“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,” he said.
“[O]ur time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed,” he said later of the economic crisis. “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
The speech addressed domestic concerns and evoked memories of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Obama spoke to the international community as well. With plans in place to close Guantanamo Bay immediately and begin to withdraw troops from Iraq, Obama is seeking to remake America’s image overseas, which had taken a dive under the Bush Administration.
“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” Obama said. “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.”
Obama graciously thanked exiting President George W. Bush for his service to the nation and the generosity and cooperation the former administration bestowed upon Obama’s team during the transition of power.
As Obama spoke, a number of important luminaries stood and applauded in the crowd. Former President Bill Clinton and his wife, the presumed next Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson III, Arizona Senator John McCain and even Diddy were in attendance before Obama. In addition to the millions watching the event in D.C., people gathered in other locations across the country, like in New York’s Times Square, to watch the address on jumbo screens.
Controversial invocation pick Pastor Rick Warren spoke prior to Obama’s address with little fanfare. Warren, outspoken in his views against gay marriage, told the crowd that their similarities are more powerful than their differences. “We’re united not by race, religion or blood, but by our commitment to freedom and justice for all,” he said.
Former Delaware Senator Joe Biden was sworn in by Associate Justice John Paul Stevens shortly before noon. By constitutional law, Obama was officially recognized as the new president at noon, despite not yet being sworn in at that time. Although throngs of supporters came out to see Obama, the president deflected attention away from himself and back toward Americans.
“For 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. “It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job, which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”
Watch “Be the Change: Live From the Inaugural” online now, and come back Thursday for the full performances from Kanye West, Kid Rock and Fall Out Boy. Stick with us for wall-to-wall coverage of the inauguration and of the scenes in Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Kenya.