by Matt Saldaña
Shouts of "O-ba-ma!" swept across the plain of the National Mall like a war cry, collecting in a wave that reached the U.S. Capitol, where Barack Hussein Obama was about to be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States in front of nearly 2 million jubilant constituents.
The sonic effect would have been frightening, if it weren't for the palpable sense of unity in welcoming Obama to office—and his well-received message of hope and change.
"He is just such a perfect leader, at this time," said Cheryl Atkinson, 50, in describing Obama's appearance onstage. "His message of unity, inclusiveness—it's really a message of love and responsibility—lets you know that it can happen. It did happen."
Indeed, Obama's inauguration address was remarkable for its message of kindness and goodwill, even as the country wages battle against a "far-reaching network of violence and hatred" and suffers the consequences of the "greed and irresponsibility" within our own economy.
One of the strongest lines was an implicit reference to the War on Terror that George W. Bush had waged: "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." But, for many, it wasn't just what Obama said, but the fact that he was even there, the country's first African-American commander-in-chief.
Norma Gabriel Taylor, 65, traveled to the inauguration from California with three generations of family members, including her 85-year-old uncle, who Taylor said never thought he'd see this day.
"It's just history. It's so overwhelming," she said before Obama took the stage. "I thought to myself, 'We're coming here with pieces of people we lost.'"
Abrella Luvert, 56, arrived with her husband from Eugene, Ore., and was also thinking about family left behind.
"My mom is 82, and we went through segregated schools," she said. "This feels like integration of the heart—people coming together. There's a spirit of unity, we felt it on the train, people being kind. Friendly faces in a big city—it feels good."
She added: "That we can all be a part of the inclusiveness is huge for me. It's worth the struggle of my parents."
Obama once again echoed the struggles of those who came before him, but added new poetry to the lyrical constructions.
"For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth," he said. "For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn. Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life."
He ended with a new variation of his autobiography, all the more powerful because he now stood, not as an ambitious U.S. senator from Illinois or a candidate on the Democratic ticket, but as the president of the United States.
"This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed—why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."
A benediction by the Rev. Joseph Lowery, an icon of the Civil Rights Era, that traversed the color wheel of ethnicities ("Help us work for that day when black will not be asked to give back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right") wrapped up the ceremony. Afterward, strangers exchanged e-mails and posed for photos in front of the Capitol—Bruce Springsteen, for one, seemed happy to oblige his neighbors' photo requests—and the crowd began to flow in all directions. One group got stuck behind the press parking lot, and calmly stepped over the plastic fence surrounding it, back into the masses.
"We're all equal now," someone said.