WASHINGTON - Against an emotional backdrop of high promise, deep despair, and extraordinary expectations, Barack Obama will become the nation's 44th president today, completing his historic quest for the White House and beginning the daunting task of leading a nation wounded by wars abroad and economic crisis at home.
On the eve of his inauguration, Obama spent the day doing what he is encouraging all Americans to do: national service.
In the morning, the president-elect made an unscheduled stop at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to visit with 14 veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. Later, he toured a Capitol Hill shelter for homeless and runaway teens, chatting with volunteers and helping paint walls, and then continued to a local high school to greet more than 300 volunteers sending letters and video messages of support to troops overseas.
And while hundreds of thousands of supporters thronged Washington on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to celebrate the swearing-in of the country's first African-American president, Obama kept the day's focus not on the racial breakthrough of his election, but on King's dedication to service.
"Everybody can be great because everybody can serve," Obama said, quoting the slain civil rights leader as he rolled Laguna blue paint on the walls of Sasha Bruce House.
While his administration intends to work hard to help Americans in need, Obama said, "Don't underestimate the power for people to pull together and to accomplish amazing things."
"These young people have huge potential that right now is not being tapped, and given the crisis that we're in and the hardships that so many people are going through, we can't allow any idle hands," he added. "Everybody's got to be involved. Everybody's going to have to pitch in, and I think the American people are ready for that."
Obama is expected to make public service and sacrifice a strong theme of his inaugural address just after noon today, calling on all Americans to work to solve the nation's problems. Yesterday, thousands of people around the country heeded Obama's call for a day of service.
"I can't do it by myself. Michelle can't do it by herself. Government can only do so much," Obama told military families, students, and other volunteers at Calvin Coolidge High School in northwest Washington.
Despite Obama's sober tone, Washington was giddy with excitement yesterday. Obama supporters of all races celebrated the extraordinary success of a 47-year-old man born to a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya he barely knew, who after just three years in the US Senate sounded themes of hope and change to defeat well-funded opponents and capture the presidency.
Crowds braved the cold and some rare snow to wander about the National Mall, waving mittened hands at TV cameras in jubilation. The Washington mass transit system sold fare cards with an image of Obama's face on them, and local shopkeepers in this heavily Democratic city taped Obama signs to their windows.
Security was tightening as Washington readied for an expected crowd of at least 1 million - and perhaps 2 million - on the Mall and along the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route today. Bridges connecting the capital and Virginia will be closed, and some 3.5 square miles of downtown Washington will be off-limits to traffic.
Parties began over the weekend and will culminate in a series of 10 official inaugural balls and numerous unofficial fetes tonight.
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"A lot of people in this country see Barack Obama as the embodiment of their dream," said Jim Demers, a Manchester, N.H.-based political activist who was an early Obama supporter and traveled to Washington for the victory celebrations and inauguration.
"This was a guy who wasn't supposed to win. He wasn't supposed to win the nomination, let alone the presidency. He shattered a big glass ceiling. It truly does give them hope and desire to pursue their dreams as well," Demers said.
Obama begins his term with a long list of national troubles to address: an economic recession, massive home foreclosures, high unemployment, two wars, a healthcare crisis, and a damaged US image abroad - any one of which could derail his presidency in the first year.
But Obama also starts with a deep reservoir of good will among the public and elected officials in both parties. Recent polls have found that Obama is the most popular incoming president in a generation, with 80 percent of Americans in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday saying they approved of the way Obama handled the transition. Further, 71 percent said Obama had earned a mandate to work for major new social and economic programs.
"These are happy times for our politics, but a very tough time for the country," said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a progressive think tank. "There's both tremendous hope and a great deal of sobriety. People are having both of these feelings at the same time."
Republicans and conservatives, too, are feeling the love for the incoming commander-in-chief - or are at least giving him a chance. Obama has already courted his political skeptics, dining with conservative commentators last week and attending three bipartisan dinners last night, which separately honored former secretary of state Colin Powell, Vice President-elect Joe Biden, and defeated GOP presidential candidate John McCain.
Calling McCain an "American hero" who understands the need for "common purpose and common effort," Obama called his former rival onto the stage to urge a new era of bipartisanship, "for it is the only way we can meet the very big and very serious challenges that we face right now."
Unlike President Bush and former President Clinton - both of whom started their terms in office facing solid groups of opponents hoping they would fail - Obama "has got people who want him to do well on both sides of the aisle," said Representative Louie Gohmert, an East Texas Republican whose district went heavily for McCain.
And although Gohmert didn't support Obama, he said the incoming Democratic president is "a gifted orator" and therefore has the capacity to spur the economy by instilling confidence among consumers.
Capitol Hill Republicans have avoided directly criticizing Obama, saving their partisan attacks for Democratic congressional leaders. Instead, GOP lawmakers have praised Obama for meeting with them this month and listening to their concerns on his economic recovery plan.
Today's inaugural address - which Obama wrote himself and is expected to clock in under 20 minutes - provides a crucial forum for Obama to ask Americans to set aside their differences as well, pulling together to repair the country's wounds, said Steve Grossman, a Newton businessman and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
"Every American who is listening or paying attention [to the speech] has to feel they are personally a shareholder in this administration and in this era," Grossman said. "He has to remind people of their moral and personal obligation as Americans to rise up and give it our best. He should set very high standards for himself, and he should set very high standards for the American people."