Packing a nation's hopes, Obama rides rails to D.C.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
ABOARD LOCOMOTIVE 44 -- Tracking Abraham Lincoln's historic path to Washington, D.C., president-elect Barack Obama launched a four-day inaugural celebration Saturday from Philadelphia to the nation's capital before thousands of chilled but cheering onlookers. He promised to bring the country "a new Declaration of Independence" -- free from small thinking, prejudice and bigotry.
Obama invoked a grand heritage of American giants as he appealed "not to our easy instincts but to our better angels," an echo of Lincoln's first inaugural address. He took note of the enormous challenges that lie ahead and promised to act with "fierce urgency," a phrase often used by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Riding a vintage railcar on his whistle-stop trip to Washington, Obama carried with him the hopes of a nation dealing with war and economic troubles. Vice president-elect Joe Biden joined the journey en route, from his home in Delaware, and spoke for many when he said he was excited and ready for Tuesday.
Then, sobered by the challenges of governing, Biden added: "I think it's Wednesday we need to be ready."
Washington pulsed with anticipation of Obama's swearing in as the nation's first black president. The city was preparing for four days of parties and pomp, shadowed at every turn by layer upon layer of security. For every banner or piece of bunting that was going up around the city, there was a concrete barrier or metal fence at the ready as well.
Revelers eager to get a head start on the celebration already were flowing into the city.
Toni Mateo, 38, arrived on a packed train from Atlanta. It was a quiet ride at first, he said.
"I just screamed out 'Obama,' and the whole crowd erupted," he said.
For all the travelers arriving in Washington, there were plenty headed the opposite direction -- fleeing the crowds, the security and the winter cold.
For Obama, there was a celebratory air as his train pulled out of the station at Philadelphia.
"Welcome aboard the 2009 inaugural train to D.C.," the conductor intoned.
Obama's blue rail car was tacked onto the back of a 10-car Amtrak train filled with hundreds of guests, reporters and staff for the 137-mile ride to Washington. Along the way, Obama and his wife, Michelle, appeared on the back balcony periodically to wave to shivering crowds bundled up in blankets and parkas who had gathered by the dozens, the hundreds and more along the route.
One held a sign that read, "Happy Birthday Michelle," taking note of the future first lady's 45th birthday. Another, in Delaware, waved a placard that said, "We came from Massachusetts 2 C U."
The well-wishers hoped not just for a glimpse of the 44th president-in-waiting but for a cameo role in history.
Joan Schiff, 47, a small business owner who campaigned for Obama, turned out for his departure from Philadelphia.
"At some point, you look up and think, 'I am in a moment,"' she said.
Carolyn Tyson, 55, came from Medford, N.J., to catch Obama's stop in Wilmington. She arrived a good seven hours early, at 6:30 a.m., to see the new president. "It's unreal, it's surreal," she said of Obama's election. Tyson, who is black, said she never thought she'd see a president of color.
The heady, celebratory air was tempered, however, by the tumult of the times, and Obama was quick to acknowledge them.
"Only a handful of times in our history has a generation been confronted with challenges so vast," he said. "An economy that is faltering. Two wars, one that needs to be ended responsibly, one that needs to be waged wisely. A planet that is warming from our unsustainable dependence on oil."
"There will be false starts and setbacks, frustrations and disappointments," he said, "and we will be called to show patience even as we act with fierce urgency."
While talking about the future, Obama reflected on the past, echoing the words of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln and President John F. Kennedy. He cited the founding fathers who risked everything with no assurance of success in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776:
"They were willing to put all they were and all they had on the line -- their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor -- for a set of ideals that continue to light the world: That we are equal. That our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness come not from our laws, but from our maker. And that a government of, by, and for the people can endure."
The president-elect's triumphant day started with a sober discussion of the country's future with 41 people he met during his long quest for the White House. Preparing to board the train, Obama said that "what's required is a new declaration of independence -- from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry."
Obama disembarked briefly in Baltimore to address a frozen-but-hearty crowd of more than 40,000, echoing his earlier remarks and alluding to the patriots who defended nearby Fort McHenry against the British and inspired the poem that became "The Star-Spangled Banner."
"We are here today not simply to pay tribute to those patriots who founded our nation in Philadelphia or defended it in Baltimore, but to take up the cause for which they gave so much," he said.
Back in Washington, members of his administration looked beyond the inauguration to the details of governing.
Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett addressed the U.S. Conference of Mayors and asked for help pushing through legislation to jump-start the moribund economy.
Although Obama's path tracked Lincoln's and took on the same overtone of high security, it wasn't the journey of virtual secrecy that the 16th president-elect took so long ago on the eve of the Civil War. Lincoln was smuggled under cover of darkness from one train station to another to avoid a feared assassination attempt.
The FBI has been planning for the inauguration since June. Large trucks, a bomb-detecting robot, canisters with hundreds of gallons of water to disrupt a car bomb and other emergency response equipment stretch down a block near the FBI's Washington Field Office.
John Perren, a special agent in charge of counterterrorism, said there was no credible intelligence warning of any attack.
"We're very, very confident that if anything happens, we know how to respond to it," Perren said.