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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama, becoming 1st black U.S. president, seeks new era

Barack Obama became the first black U.S. president on Tuesday and urged Americans to embark on an era of responsibility to repair the country, its economy and its image abroad.

"Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America," Obama said, addressing a festive sea of people in his inaugural speech after taking the oath of office.

Hundreds of thousands of people erupted in roars of approval on the broad National Mall grounds as they watched Obama stand with one hand raised, one hand on a Bible used to swear in Abraham Lincoln in 1861, and repeat the brief oath to become the 44th U.S. president and succeed George W. Bush.

Beaming broadly, the new president had kisses on the cheek for his wife, Michelle, and his school-age daughters, Malia and Sasha, then he turned to the crowds stretching away into the distance on a cold, wintry day.

"Obama, Obama," the crowd cheered.

The inauguration of Obama, 47, the son of a black Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, was steeped in symbolic meaning for African-Americans, who for generations suffered slavery and then racial segregation that made them second-class citizens. In a nod to that history, Obama lauded the people who built the country from its foundation, including those who "endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth."

Obama is a Democrat taking over from the Republican Bush, who served two terms and was returning to Texas on Tuesday after plumbing record lows in approval ratings and leaving a legacy of two wars and an economy in recession. The new president pledged bold and swift action on the "badly weakened" U.S. economy, which will be a top priority as he works with the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress on an estimated $825 billion economic stimulus package aimed at jolting the economy back to life.

U.S. stock indexes extended losses and hit session lows after his speech, which provided few new details on how to tackle the crisis.


Beginning a presidency with great expectations, Obama vowed the United States would leave Iraq "responsibly" and will help Afghanistan earn a hard-earned peace.

He did not provide a specific timetable for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, but under a U.S.-Iraqi agreement, U.S. troops would depart by the end of 2011. He has pledged to increase U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan to turn back a resurgent Taliban. In a clear reference to harsh U.S. interrogation practices of terrorism suspects that have been widely condemned abroad, Obama vowed a change, saying he rejected as false "the choice between our safety and our ideals."

His administration did not immediately issue an order to shut down the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but aides said he might by the end of the week. The Guantanamo prison has been a lightning rod for broad world disapproval of many Bush policies in the U.S. war on terrorism that Bush declared after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 that deeply shaped his eight years in office. To millions watching abroad, Obama said, "Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more."

After years of tense relations with Muslims following the Sept. 11 attacks and the Bush war on terrorism, Obama offered conciliatory words to the Islamic community, saying he would seek a "new way forward" based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

But on the issue of terrorism, he said: "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and 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."


Polls show widespread U.S. public support for Obama and optimism about the coming four years of his presidency. But Obama sought to temper soaring expectations with reality. He cited the worst U.S. economic conditions in 70 years and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as having placed the country in crisis and said it was time to "proclaim an end to the petty grievances" that have long divided Americans.

"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - 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," he said.

Obama pledged to revive an economy that he said had been badly damaged by "greed and irresponsibility" and an avoidance of hard choices. He said the economic crisis showed that markets can spin out of control "without a watchful eye" and that prosperity must be shared more broadly. The recession has saddled the country with a $1 trillion deficit and 11 million people unemployed and has become the top concern of the U.S. public. Economic woes helped Obama beat Republican John McCain in the November presidential election.

"I don't care what color he is," said Garrell Winstead, a 67-year-old real estate investor who traveled to the Mall from Cincinnati, Ohio to see Obama sworn in. "If the economy doesn't improve and if he doesn't create enough jobs, patience will evaporate."

The new president did not delve into specifics about his proposed stimulus package. But he said the plan that would pay for new roads, bridges, electrical grids and other projects would set the foundation for future growth. His reference to the lack of a watchful eye on markets signaled he would put a priority on revamping financial regulations.


The inauguration took place amid unprecedented security. About 8,000 police were deployed and a total of 32,000 military personnel were on duty or on standby. The Homeland Security Department said authorities were investigating a potential threat involving a Somali insurgent group in connection with the inauguration. Some estimates put the number of people expected to pack the Mall and inaugural parade route at more than 2 million.

In one of his first actions as president, Obama plans to name a Middle East envoy, and former Sen. George Mitchell -- a veteran trouble-shooter -- is a leading candidate, a source familiar with the matter said.

Obama will also meet military commanders on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of accelerating the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. He is also expected to discuss the need for more forces in Afghanistan.

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