Obama: We're ready to lead once more

First African-American president takes office; "America is a friend of each nation and every man."

bush hugging obama 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
bush hugging obama 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Barack H. Obama became the first African-American president of the United States on Tuesday, drawing on his pathbreaking heritage to provide hope to a nation that faces grave challenges, and inspiration to a world that has doubts about America's policies. Speaking from the steps of the US Capitol building, glimmering in a broad sunshine that couldn't dispel a deep winter chill, Obama pledged a new beginning for Americans and new leadership for the international community, even as he affirmed the history and values of a country he vowed to defend from terrorism and nuclear proliferation. "On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord," he told more than a million cheering and flag-waving Americans who gathered from around the country, flooding the National Mall, to watch him take the oath of office as America's 44th president. "The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit, to choose our better history, to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness. Obama, embodying the promise of an equality denied so many Americans for so long as he recited the oath of office - administered by US Chief Justice John Roberts - and delivered his inaugural address on the steps of a Capitol building draped with massive American flags, declared that this past enabled the vision of a better future. "Because we have tasted the bitter swill of Civil War and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass," he said, pointing to a renewed American role on the international stage. "We are ready to lead once more," he declared, offering a hand of friendship to allies and peace-seekers, even as he warned enemies they would not prevail. "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense," he insisted, speaking for the first time as a commander-in-chief who has inherited two punishing wars. "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." "America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity." His words were greeted by loud applause, rising from the masses who had gathered from before dawn to celebrate the landmark occasion. Looking at the colorful sea of faces, which stretched more than a mile from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and beyond, Obama suggested it was that very diverse swath of humanity that proved America would overcome the challenge posed by its foes. "We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness," he said. "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth." The inauguration ceremony, presided over by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, included the American Shaker hymn "Tis a Gift to Be Simple," performed by a diverse group of performers including Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma. Jewish heritage played a key role in the opening benediction, delivered by evangelical Pastor Rick Warren, who began by reciting the words of the shema prayer in English. "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one" resounded from the podium and across the gathering, which included the former living presidents, current congressional leadership and military representatives, as well as citizens who felt they had to play a part in witnessing history. "We have overcome," proclaimed one homemade sign of canvas and electrical tape, a nod to the classic protest song "We Shall Overcome," sung when a black man in the Oval Office was unthinkable. "I made it in consideration of the path we as a nation have taken. I'm getting choked up just thinking about it," said 36-year-old Patrick Kennedy, tears coming to his green eyes. "Today is a huge leap that says we have overcome - not as black people, not as white people, but as human beings." Obama did, however, reach out to one particular group whose ties with America have been strained during Republican George W. Bush's eight years as president. "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," 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." The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that George Mitchell, the former Senate Democratic majority leader, is likely to be named the Middle East envoy for the Obama administration. Mitchell is highly regarded for his work as a negotiator in the successful Northern Ireland peace process, and his selection would put a clear stamp on the Middle East as a top priority. The Mitchell plan for the Middle East helped form the basis for the international road map peace plan that helped guide regional diplomacy throughout the Bush years. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praised Obama on Tuesday. "Barack Obama's journey to the White House has impressed and inspired the entire world. I am convinced that the United States' deep and abiding ties with Israel will strengthen further," Olmert said in a statement released by his office. "The values of democracy, brotherhood and freedom that constitute the building blocks of American society are also shared by Israeli society, together with the faith in man's power and ability to change and influence his surroundings. "We wish the incoming president success in his office and are certain that we will be full partners in advancing peace and stability in the Middle East," he said. Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu called Obama's inauguration "a great story of freedom, opportunity actualizing itself, and democracy." Asked by Channel 2 how he would get along with Obama as prime minister, Netanyahu said that he had had two successful meetings with him in which they had seen eye to eye. "We will get along terrific," Netanyahu said. "If I get elected, I look forward to working together with the Obama administration on our mutual goals. We have a mutual enemy and a mutual mission. I'll make sure Israel and the US work together against the dangers we are facing." Obama will meet Wednesday - his first full working day in office - with his team of national security advisers to discuss the way ahead in Iraq and Afghanistan, receiving the head of Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus at the White House. Though Obama called on America to "play its role in ushering in a new era of peace," he also acknowledged the serious domestic challenges America faced. "Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met," he declared. As he concluded, the crowd spontaneously chanted, "Yes, we can!" - the campaign slogan that helped launch the freshman Illinois senator from relative obscurity just two years ago to the world's most powerful office, handing Democrats the White House for the first time since 2000. Obama urged Americans to set out on the long journey ahead at once. "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America," he said.