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Obama Rallies Crowd To Meet Country's Challenges

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep. Now that the crowds are gone and the cleanup has begun, a very small number of people woke up this morning with a view of the National Mall. That small number includes the new occupants of the White House. It was a festive Inauguration Day, but a somber speech suggested the challenges of the days ahead. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on a new president's first day.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Inauguration Day for Barack Obama began at St. John's Episcopal Church not far from the White House. The church choir sang "This Little Light of Mine," and a visiting pastor from Dallas, T.D. Jakes, observed that God always sends the best men into the worst times. Mr. Obama, his running mate, Joe Biden, and their wives then had coffee at the White House with George and Laura Bush and Dick and Lynne Cheney as a huge crowd assembled on the National Mall. The noontime swearing in ceremony was preceded by some all-star musical talent ranging from Itzhak Perlman to Aretha Franklin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "MY COUNTRY 'TIS OF THEE")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) My country,' tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing...

HORSLEY: The day was mostly clear and cold in Washington with temperatures hovering in the 20s. In his inaugural address, President Obama hearkened back to another frigid winter, suggesting that as tough as times might seem right now, the nation has weathered worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF INAUGURAL ADDRESS)

BARACK OBAMA: In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by nine campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood...

HORSLEY: At that moment, Mr. Obama said, when the American Revolution was most in doubt, George Washington offered an inspirational message.

(SOUNDBITE OF INAUGURAL ADDRESS)

OBAMA: "Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it."

HORSLEY: Aides say the president's speechwriting team began working on the address before Thanksgiving, but that Mr. Obama himself wrote most of it a couple of weekends ago while holed up in Washington's Hay-Adams Hotel. He wanted to express the severity of the situation the nation finds itself in - a struggling economy and two wars - while at the same time instilling confidence that those challenges can be overcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF INAUGURAL ADDRESS)

OBAMA: Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD OVATION)

HORSLEY: The new president has championed a huge economic stimulus package, while at the same time promising to reform health care and develop cleaner forms of energy. He said the question is no longer whether government is too big or too small, but rather whether government works.

(SOUNDBITE OF INAUGURAL ADDRESS)

OBAMA: When the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. When the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

HORSLEY: And as much as government can and should do, Mr. Obama said, every American has to take responsibility for the common good. VIPs at the Capitol included Chesley Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who guided his crippled jet to a safe river landing last week, then made certain that everyone got off the plane. Mr. Obama paid tribute to some less famous acts of heroism.

(SOUNDBITE OF INAUGURAL ADDRESS)

OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: On foreign policy, Mr. Obama renewed his promise to end the war in Iraq, while also warning terrorists that the U.S. won't bend in its battle against them. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered to hear the speech in person in a crowd that stretched from the Capitol well beyond the Washington Monument. Joseph Holloway(ph) and his three-year-old son chose to watch from the far end of the Mall on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

JOSEPH HOLLOWAY: When you just think about what happened during Lincoln's time and then with King making such a huge statement to the world from these very steps, and to be here when the first African-American president is sworn in to the office is just unbelievable. It's something that, you know, we'll never forget. And I think it's a great opportunity for our son.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama did not dwell on race, but he did suggest his election is a sign of how far the nation has come.

(SOUNDBITE OF INAUGURAL ADDRESS)

OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: After taking that oath, with his hand on Lincoln's Bible, Mr. Obama escorted former President Bush to the east side of the Capitol for his departure to his home in Texas. Later, the new White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, issued a memo freezing all pending Bush-era regulations until the new administration can review them. While the new administration has a lot on its plate, the president and first lady did take a few hours yesterday to party.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING AND PEOPLE CHEERING)

HORSLEY: Unidentified Man: Obama, Obama, Obama...

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

HORSLEY: The first couple then danced their way through 10 official inaugural balls. It was a long day and a long night, the first of many Mr. Obama will spend as president. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Let's be fair, the presidential oath of office was not as badly botched as the oath in various slapstick movies - you know, where the guy says, repeat after me, I, state your name. And the answer comes back, I, state your name. It wasn't that bad. Still there was an awkward moment when Chief Justice John Roberts got the words slightly out of order. He said the word "faithfully" in the wrong place. And the new president paused as if wondering whether to say the words in the order that they are written in the Constitution or just politely repeat after Justice Roberts.

JOHN ROBERTS: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear.

OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear.

ROBERTS: That I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully.

OBAMA: That I will execute...

ROBERTS: The office - faithfully the office of president of the United States.

OBAMA: the office of president to the United States faithfully.

ROBERTS: And will to the best of my ability.

OBAMA: And will to the best of my ability.

INSKEEP: You'll notice that after that awkward pause, the politeness of both men prevailed. Even as the chief justice was correcting himself, the president repeated the words in the way that Roberts misspoke them. Chief Justice Roberts was a nominee of President Bush, and the people that opposed him included Senator Barack Obama, which made that awkward pause, if anything, more meaningful. This first moment of the new administration showcased two people of very different backgrounds and very different views just trying to get it right. You can explore NPR's coverage of the inauguration from the National Mall, across the country, and across the world at our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Horsley
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.