WASHINGTON — Barack Obama, his hand on the Bible used by Abraham Lincoln more than a century ago, was sworn in as the nation's 44th president Tuesday, calling for a "new era of responsibility" and promising an ambitious agenda for a beleaguered country.
"Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions, that time has surely passed," Obama declared before a joyous crowd of Americans that stretched as far as he could see. "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America. For everywhere we look, there is work to be done."
In an address ringing with history, America's first African-American president pledged to rebuild the country's decaying infrastructure, reform health care, improve education and work toward energy independence — all while tackling the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
"There are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans,'' said the 47-year-old president who campaigned on the need for transformational change.
"What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified."
Hundreds of thousands of citizens flooded the National Mall, cheering and breaking into chants of "Obama," an ecstatic rock-concert atmosphere that contrasted with Obama's somber inauguration speech.
Especially for many of the African-Americans in the massive, frigid crowd, including members of the celebrated Tuskegee Airmen given an honored spot near the lectern, it was a day they never thought they'd live to see.
The son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas recognized that shattered barrier. It's testament to America's creed, he said, that "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."
The joyous atmosphere was tempered when Sen. Ted Kennedy was rushed to the hospital by ambulance after suffering an apparent seizure during a Senate luncheon with the new president. Obama noted that Kennedy has been a champion for civil rights, "so I would be lying to you if I did not say that right now a part of me is with him.''
Barack Hussein Obama begins his presidency with sky-high approval ratings and equally soaring challenges: 11-million Americans out of work, one in 10 delinquent on mortgage payments and more than 170,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Obama made clear his intent to break sharply from George W. Bush, who sat watching nearby while his successor promised America was "ready to lead once more" and bluntly repudiated the 43rd president's policies on science and national security.
"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations,'' Obama said. "Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake."
Personal responsibility and accountability served as the broad theme of Obama's address, but the central message was clear: The Bush years are done and a new page has turned.
Bush has been reviled abroad, but Obama has promised a more open and cooperative approach to foreign relations. His 18-minute speech was addressed not just to America but the entire world.
"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. 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,'' he said. "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."
Later, as the inaugural parade inched its way down Pennsylvania Avenue, the new president and the first lady twice left their armored limousine to walk, bringing them briefly closer to the outstretched, open arms of the people who got them there.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8241.