Obama sworn in as president as hundreds of thousands watch, calls for responsibility

WASHINGTON (MCT)– President Barack Obama, calling on Americans to embrace “a new era of responsibility,” delivered an inaugural address sober in its recognition of the crises confronting Americans yet soaring in its call to service.

Obama, sworn in Tuesday as the 44th president of the United States outside the Capitol before a crowd mostly filling the National Mall along its entire 1.9 miles, focused not only on the economic crisis but also a crisis of confidence that he said can be overcome only through a renewed national resolve for greatness.

“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility,” Obama said in a long-anticipated and largely self-crafted inaugural address, “a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

“This is the price and the promise of citizenship,” the newly inaugurated president said under a sunny sky on a cold, wintry day before hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom had begun gathering in the frosty pre-dawn hours.

“On this day,” Obama said, “we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”

Barack Hussein Obama, born in Hawaii of a mother from Kansas and father from Kenya, is unique in American history: The first African-American president of a nation once riven by slavery and racially segregated by law for decades.

At 47, Obama is not the nation’s youngest chief executive _ Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Bill Clinton were younger when they took office. But the Democrat from Chicago, a lawmaker, constitutional lawyer and onetime community activist, has united young and old with his call for “a new declaration of independence” from divisiveness.

“Every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms,” Obama said. “At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because ‘we the people’ have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbears, and true to our founding documents.

“So it has been,” he told the nation. “So it must be with this generation of Americans.”

Obama enters office at one of the most challenging junctures in modern history: In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the nation is also at war on two fronts.

“We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth,” Obama said. “Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished …”

“Starting today,” he said, “we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America.”

Within his first month in office, the new president is expected to ask Congress to approve an $800 billion economic stimulus package that promises more than 3 million jobs in the next few years.

“He is going to be counting on the American people to come together,” said retired Gen. Colin Powell, an Obama supporter who also served as secretary of state under former President George W. Bush. “We all have to do something to help the country move forward under the leadership of this new president.”

Among the many who packed the National Mall was Gloria Washington-Lewis Randall, an African-American from Alabama who spent 2 { weeks in jail after a civil rights demonstration in 1963. “You don’t really notice the cold out here,” she said. “It’s a warmness that’s coming up. Because no more will we be called black or white. We’ll be called Americans.”

Obama enters office with a pledge for an orderly and responsible withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq after nearly six years of war that has claimed more than 4,000 American lives. At the same time, he supports an escalation of U.S. military force in Afghanistan, “the real front in the war against terrorism.”

And he pledged that the fight against terrorism _ a pursuit that came to consume and define much of Bush’s presidency _ would be won.

For Obama, a Harvard-educated attorney who served less than one term in the Senate, the inauguration is the culmination of a dream that he himself has billed as “audacious:” A candidate with a “funny name” unknown to much of the nation just five years ago.

Obama shed his anonymity with the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 2004, but he remained a long-shot for the nation’s highest office when he announced his candidacy in front of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., on Feb. 10, 2007.

“I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness _ a certain audacity _ to this announcement,” Obama told a crowd filling the square on that frigid winter day. “I know I haven’t spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I’ve been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.”

He entered a crowded contest for the Democratic Party’s nomination, with much of the party’s conventional wisdom pointing toward the nomination of Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, a former first lady. In the end, after outrunning Clinton in a long-fought primary campaign, Obama named her secretary of state.

In Republican Sen. John McCain, the GOP’s presidential nominee, Obama faced a much older, more seasoned senator with a military hero’s story to boot. At first, the war in Iraq stood as a defining difference between the two. Yet, as the campaign progressed, the protracted war was eclipsed by economic calamity.

By Election Day, Obama had amassed support in enough states _ including some that had long voted Republican, such as Virginia and Indiana _ for an Electoral College landslide.

On Tuesday, Obama raised his right hand and swore to preserve the Constitution of the United States.

“With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come,” Obama said in his address. “Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter, and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.