WASHINGTON, Jan 20 – Tracing the arc of history to a day many thought would never come, Barack Obama was Tuesday to be sworn in as America’s 44th and first black president — and wade into a sea of troubles.,
Climaxing the unlikeliest of journeys, Obama, the son of a black Kenyan and white mother from Kansas was to take the oath of office at noon (1700 GMT) on the steps of the Capitol, a Congress building built by slave labor.
Guarded by an unprecedented security operation, millions were expected to pack the National Mall stretching from Capitol Hill to the Lincoln Memorial — where Martin Luther King, in 1963, spoke of a dream of racial unity.
To his successor, President George W. Bush bequeaths an economy in crisis, a war on two fronts and a patchwork of frayed alliances. For Obama, drawing inspiration both from Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the perils of the age call for a spirit of national sacrifice unseen since World War II.
"Tomorrow, we will come together as one people on the same mall where Dr King’s dream echoes still," Obama said Monday, paying tribute to the slain civil rights hero on the national holiday commemorating King’s birth.
"As we do, we recognize that here in America, our destinies are inextricably linked," he said.
"We resolve that as we walk, we must walk together. And as we go forward in the work of renewing the promise of this nation, let’s remember King’s lesson — that our separate dreams are really one."
Tuesday morning, in the first presidential handover since the September 11 attacks of 2001, Obama and his wife Michelle were to meet the departing president and First Lady Laura Bush at their new home in the White House.
Then after swearing to "preserve, protect and defend" the US constitution, Obama was to deliver his most important speech yet in a career littered with memorable oratory since his explosion onto the national stage in 2004.
Braving the cold, a vast crowd was expected to line the Mall, watching the inauguration either near the West Front of the US Capitol for the lucky few, or in front of giant TV screens for the rest.
Renita King, 46, said she had flown from Houston, Texas with her six-year-old son Arthur to mark the years of racial prejudice endured by her 73-year-old mother.
"I am here for her, and every time that she was called a nigger — that is how I see this, as an American," she said.
Aides said Obama’s call for all Americans to embrace public service would dominate his inaugural address, as he gets to grips with the nation’s longest recession since World War II and his plans to pull US troops out of Iraq.
Bush’s White House said Defense Secretary Robert Gates would sit out the inauguration at an undisclosed location as the "designated successor" in the event of a catastrophe.
Gates was a fitting choice: Bush chose him to be his defense secretary in November 2006, and Obama has decided to keep him on at the Pentagon to tackle the withdrawal from Iraq and launch a new offensive in Afghanistan.
Outgoing Vice President Dick Cheney, 67, pulled a muscle in his back Monday — latest in a series of health problems — while moving boxes and will be in a wheelchair for the inauguration, the White House said.
The "war on terror" is just one part of Obama’s groaning in-tray of challenges. From Gaza to Guantanamo, he confronts a world in tumult, a point underscored by the latest bellicose noises from nuclear-armed North Korea.
Following the inauguration of Obama and vice president-elect Joseph Biden, the new US leaders were to lunch with members of Congress, Supreme Court justices and Obama’s cabinet, including secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
Marching bands, military veterans, union workers and schoolchildren were to then join a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House for Obama to take up the reins of power in the Oval Office and his place in history.
The whirlwind day was to climax in 10 official inaugural balls before the Obamas could retire with their daughters Malia and Sasha, becoming the youngest First Family since that of John F. Kennedy, who occupied the White House in the early 1960s.
The celebrations have an acute poignancy for many in the United States, and the world, given Obama’s mold-shattering bi-racial heritage.
But the new administration has no time to rest on its laurels. Obama aides have spelt out an action-packed first week, topped by action in Congress to pass a 825-billion-dollar economic stimulus plan.