Voice Your Choice
New president cites old virtues, familiar comforts
WASHINGTON -- As he became a precedent-shattering president Tuesday, Barack Obama wrapped himself in deep traditions and familiar comforts.
Going to church. Calling an old friend in the hospital. Dancing to the beat of his high school's band.
In fact, the youthful president, who ran on a platform of change, said the values needed to overcome the nation's deep challenges "are old," and they include hard work, honesty, courage, fair play, loyalty and patriotism.
Americans, he said in his 18-minute inaugural address, must "return to these truths."
Throughout his campaign to become the first black president, Obama rarely mentioned race unless asked, and he carefully avoided being branded the "black candidate."
In a similar vein Tuesday, he stressed familiar themes of American governance, with only scant references to the historic dimensions of his achievement (as when he noted that his black father "might not have been served" at Washington restaurants decades ago). An American named Barack Hussein Obama, with a father from Kenya, is as deeply rooted in Bunker Hill as any descendent of the Mayflower's passengers, he seemed to say.
Obama started the day with a service at "the presidents' church," St. John's Episcopal near the White House, where every president since James Madison has worshipped. He planned to end it with the traditional visit to each of the 10 official balls, including brief remarks and dancing with his wife, Michelle. At some point in between he hoped to enter the Oval Office for the first time as president, said his spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Even without entering the White House, however, Obama ordered federal agencies to stop all pending regulations until his administration can review them. And the Senate swiftly approved six members of his Cabinet.
One of the day's few unscripted (and frightening) moments came when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer, suffered a seizure during a post-inaugural luncheon. Obama rushed to the side of his mentor and friend before Kennedy was taken to a hospital for observation overnight.
"I would be lying to you if I did not say that, right now, a part of me is with him," Obama told those who remained in the Capitol's ornate Statuary Hall.
Throughout the day, Obama appeared somber almost as often as he appeared jubilant, hardly a surprise to those familiar with his even temperament. Walking from inside the Capitol to the west steps moments before his swearing-in, he gazed solemnly straight ahead until well-wishers began shaking his hand.
He recovered quickly from a brief flub, caused by Chief Justice John Roberts mixing up the wording of the presidential oath of office he was having Obama recite. The word "faithfully" wound up in the wrong spot, but Obama got through it, thanking Roberts and then kissing Michelle.
During the speech, he kept his demeanor cool and calm, not trying to push the millions of viewers to new levels of fervor. There were no "I have a dream" crescendos, although he acknowledged "the bitter swill of civil war and segregation."
He did not try the inverted syntax of "Ask not what your country can do for you." But he echoed John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln when he urged Americans to "choose our better history" by advancing "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."
He even added a whisper of Shakespeare ("this winter of our hardship"), but he served up few obvious applause lines and no over-the-top rhetoric.
The president's mood was brighter during the inaugural parade. He and Michelle twice emerged from their heavily armored limousine to walk along Pennsylvania Avenue and wave to wildly cheering onlookers.
Later, watching the parade from the reviewing stand, Obama danced in place to a drum-driven tune by the marching band from Hawaii's Punahou School, his alma mater.
The Obamas planned to dance at the balls well past midnight, but the new president has a jam-packed schedule on Wednesday, including separate meetings with his top economic and military advisers.
It will start with something familiar and comforting, however: a prayer service at the National Cathedral.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)