/ 20 January 2009

Barack Obama steps into history

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Tracing the arc of history to a day many thought would never come, Barack Obama is on Tuesday to be sworn in as the United States’s 44th and first black president — and wades into a sea of troubles.

Climaxing the unlikeliest of journeys, Obama, the son of a black Kenyan and white mother from Kansas is to take the oath of office at noon (5pm GMT) on the steps of the Capitol, a Congress building built by slave labour.

Guarded by an unprecedented security operation, millions are expected to pack the National Mall stretching from Capitol Hill to the Lincoln Memorial — where Martin Luther King, in 1963, spoke of a dream of racial unity.

To his successor, President George Bush bequeaths an economy in crisis, a war on two fronts and a patchwork of frayed alliances. For Obama, drawing inspiration both from Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D Roosevelt, the perils of the age call for a spirit of national sacrifice unseen since World War II.

”Tomorrow, we will come together as one people on the same mall where Dr King’s dream echoes still,” Obama said on Monday, paying tribute to the slain civil rights hero on the national holiday commemorating King’s birth.

”As we do, we recognise that here in America, our destinies are inextricably linked,” he said.

”We resolve that as we walk, we must walk together. And as we go forward in the work of renewing the promise of this nation, let’s remember King’s lesson — that our separate dreams are really one.”

On Tuesday morning, in the first presidential handover since the September 11 attacks of 2001, Obama and his wife, Michelle, are to meet the departing president and First Lady Laura Bush at their new home in the White House.

Then after swearing to ”preserve, protect and defend” the US Constitution, Obama is to deliver his most important speech yet in a career littered with memorable oratory since his explosion on to the national stage in 2004.

Braving the cold, a vast crowd is expected to line the Mall, watching the inauguration either near the West Front of the US Capitol for the lucky few, or in front of giant TV screens for the rest.

Renita King (46) said she had flown from Houston, Texas, with six-year-old son Arthur to mark the years of racial prejudice endured by her 73-year-old mother.

”I am here for her, and every time that she was called a nigger — that is how I see this, as an American,” she said.

Aides said Obama’s call for all Americans to embrace public service would dominate his inaugural address, as he gets to grips with the nation’s longest recession since World War II and his plans to pull US troops out of Iraq.

Bush’s White House said Defence Secretary Robert Gates would sit out the inauguration at an undisclosed location as the ”designated successor” in the event of a catastrophe.

Gates was a fitting choice: Bush chose him to be his defence secretary in November 2006, and Obama has decided to keep him on at the Pentagon to tackle the withdrawal from Iraq and launch a new offensive in Afghanistan.

Outgoing Vice-President Dick Cheney (67) pulled a muscle in his back on Monday — latest in a series of health problems — while moving boxes and will be in a wheelchair for the inauguration, the White House said.

Groaning in-tray of challenges
The ”war on terror” is just one part of Obama’s groaning in-tray of challenges. From Gaza to Guantánamo, he confronts a world in tumult, a point underscored by the latest bellicose noises from nuclear-armed North Korea.

Following the inauguration of Obama and vice-president-elect Joseph Biden, the new US leaders are to lunch with members of Congress, Supreme Court justices and Obama’s Cabinet, including secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

Marching bands, military veterans, union workers and schoolchildren are to then join a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House for Obama to take up the reins of power in the Oval Office and his place in history.

The whirlwind day is to climax in 10 official inaugural balls before the Obamas can retire with their daughters, Malia and Sasha, becoming the youngest First Family since that of John F Kennedy, who occupied the White House in the early 1960s.

But the new administration has no time to rest on its laurels. Obama aides have spelt out an action-packed first week, topped by action in Congress to pass an $825-billion economic stimulus plan. — AFP