Barack Obama: The hand of history

ONLY a man who shines with hope could deliver such a difficult message and have it received with the awed rapture that fell upon the masses in Washington DC.

Barack Obama, in his history-making inauguration address as 44th President of the United States, did not spare his country, or the world, the harsh realities of the challenges that need to be faced – economic, social, environmental and military – as he takes office.

Yet he imbued his speech with a believable optimism. "Today, I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many," he told a crowd estimated at two million gathered in the US capital yesterday, with hundreds of millions more watching globally.

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"They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met."

Minutes after taking the oath of office on the steps of the Capitol building, Mr Obama insisted personal responsibility must be at the heart of a revival.

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

Near the start of his speech, there had been harsh words, undoubtedly directed at Osama bin Laden, who last week released a tape saying: "We continue the path of jihad … the question is, can America continue its war with us?"

In an answer that will reach a wider audience than even the al-Qaeda leader's words, Mr Obama said: "For those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

THE phrase "war on terror", so closely associated with the Bush administration, did not pass his lips, however.

And in a warning directed to the likes of Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe, he 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."

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The fiery rhetoric was mixed with a promise to reach out to other nations. "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," he said.

At the start of a presidency full of great expectations, Mr Obama vowed to quit Iraq "responsibly" and help Afghanistan achieve "a hard-earned peace".

He did not provide a timetable for a withdrawal from Iraq, but under a US-Iraqi agreement, American troops would depart by the end of 2011. He has pledged to increase US troop strength in Afghanistan to turn back a resurgent Taleban.

In a clear reference to harsh US interrogation practices used on terror suspects that have been widely condemned abroad, Mr Obama vowed change, saying he rejected as false "the choice between our safety and our ideals".

He told his massive audience that confidence, that most American of attributes, was "sapping across our land" and that people had to take responsibility for both the problem and the solution. He spoke of "a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights".

He said: "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age."

In a reference to the US Declaration of Independence's pledge of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, he said: "The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit, the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."

The ceremony was the culmination of a remarkable ascent for the 47-year-old Democrat, who moves into the Oval Office as the fourth-youngest president. In less than five years, he rose from a little-known Illinois state senator to the nation's highest office, persuading Americans that, despite his relative inexperience, he could turn around the economy, end the Iraq war and restore US standing in the world.

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A gifted and inspirational speaker, he raised the hopes of millions as he promised even before taking office to emphasise diplomacy, seek global solutions to climate change, reject torture and shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Acknowledging the historic nature of his inauguration as leader of a nation with a deeply troubled racial past, the new president said: "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." It was a remark that drew huge cheers from the many African Americans in the audience.

"To be honest, I didn't think white America was ready for a black president," said New York postman Ron Wallace, 50, who had travelled to Washington to witness the event. "But when I saw the young people who go out for him, I changed my mind. Martin Luther King had a dream that one day there would be a president, a black man as president, and that day is today."

For others in the crowd, appreciation was mixed with caution. "I don't necessarily buy the hype, but I had a lump in my throat all the way through that speech," said Kate Brown, a Washington researcher. Izabela Grocholski, an art gallery director, said: "It was a wonderful start. He reminded us that every individual is responsible for our condition, that we have to work together to dig our way out."

Mr Obama pledged bold and swift action on the "badly weakened" US economy, which will be a top priority as he works with the Democrat-controlled Congress on an estimated $825 billion stimulus package aimed at jolting the economy back to life.

The new president did not go into specifics over the proposed spending, but he said the plan that would pay for new roads, bridges, electrical grids and other projects would set the foundation for future growth.

HOWEVER, perhaps unhappy at the lack of specifics, US stock markets were unimpressed and hit session lows after his speech.

In comments aimed firmly at the Christian Right and their opposition to stem-cell research, Mr Obama told the crowd: "We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise healthcare's quality and lower its cost."

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Signalling another departure from Bush-era policies, he outlined the change that will now come to White House thinking on the environment, promising to "work tirelessly to roll back the spectre of a warming planet" and warning "nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect".

Hundreds of thousands of people had earlier roared with approval on the broad National Mall grounds as they watched Mr Obama stand with one hand raised and the other on the Bible used in 1861 to swear in Abraham Lincoln, and repeat the brief oath to become president and succeed George Bush.

Beaming, on a cold, wintry day, the new president had kisses on the cheek for his wife, Michelle, and their school-age daughters, Malia and Sasha. He then turned to face the crowds stretching into the distance. "Obama, Obama," they cheered.

Mr Obama's day had got off to a shaky start. Delays caused by huge traffic jams meant the ceremony ran 20 minutes late and, even with many earlier speeches cut, he took the oath at four minutes past noon – the Constitution specifies it must be taken on the stroke of midday.

Perhaps aware of the time pressure, both he and Chief Justice John Roberts, who took the swearing-in, stumbled over early parts of the oath of office.

No-one cared much.

They had just seen history being made.

Pneumonia, pigeons and past oaths

BARACK Obama used Abraham Lincoln's inaugural Bible to take his oath of office.

• Dwight Eisenhower's 1953 parade was covered by a 24-year-old reporter for the Washington Times-Herald: she was Jacqueline Bouvier, later Jackie Kennedy.

• The shortest inauguration speech was by George Washington in 1793 (133 words), the longest by William H Harrison in 1841 (nearly two hours long and 10,000 words). He delivered the speech without a coat or hat and died a month later from pneumonia.

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• Lyndon B Johnson was the only president to take the oath on an aeroplane, taking office immediately after John F Kennedy's assassination.

• At Ulysses Grant's second inauguration ball in 1873, it was so cold that the food froze, the guests danced in their coats, the musicians' violin strings snapped and 100 canaries froze to death in their cages.

• An attempt before Richard Nixon's inauguration parade in 1973 to clear the route of pigeons went badly wrong when a chemical called Roost-No-More was applied to the trees. It was supposed to make the birds' feet itch so they would fly off. Instead, the birds ate the repellent and keeled over, leaving Pennsylvania Avenue covered with dead birds.

• "Tricky" Dicky Nixon took the oath with two bibles; Teddy Roosevelt didn't even have one.

Ross Lydall: With a nod towards Springsteen, the new Boss steps up

IT WAS not the soaring rhetoric millions had eagerly anticipated. Rather, after the nervous stumbling of the inauguration, Barack Obama's first speech as US president set out the parameters of his administration's plans for the next four years.

It was a steely performance, one that called on Americans to draw on old values – "hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism" – to deal with present-day problems. Of those there were many.

First was the reminder that the United States was at war, against "a far-reaching network of violence and hatred". He did not use the now discredited phrase "war on terror", but that is what he meant. He also had pledges to honour. US forces would "responsibly leave Iraq" to its people and "forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan".

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There was a Hollywood hero-type address directed at Osama bin Laden: the US would not apologise for its way of life, he said. "You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

Other battlegrounds were mentioned, too, from the Second World War Normandy landings to the Vietnam War and battles at Khe Sahn.

This was the first of two references which alluded to Bruce Springsteen, known as the Boss. Khe Sahn appears in a line of Springsteen's Born in the USA. A later reference to 9/11 and a "firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke" is the theme of The Rising, the Springsteen song adopted by Mr Obama as his presidential anthem.

He dipped into his own background, noting that he was the son of a man who, less than 60 years ago, would not have been served at a local restaurant. Slaves who endured "the lash of the whip" and "ploughed the hard earth" were there, too.

But there was no mistaking his priority was to rebuild America's infrastructure as he rebuilt its image. Health, schools and the environment all needed attention. Science would be restored to its "rightful place" – a hint of embryo research and fights with the Christian Right.

He retained faith in the markets. Despite the "greed and irresponsibility" of some, he said, it was "our surest route to the common good".

The body politic was also in need of reinvention. State programmes that had failed would end, as would "petty grievances and false promises". The speech ended with a burst of pace, a call to act for "our children's children". The message was clear: it's time for business.

• Live blog: Inauguration as it happened

• In pictures: President Obama's inauguration

• Obama: Challenges will be met