Celebration and solemnity as Obama nears inauguration
Reuters - 2 hours 32 minutes ago
By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON - Barack Obama approached his inauguration as the 44th U.S. president with a mix of solemnity and celebration on Sunday, laying a wreath at a military grave before planning to attend an outdoor concert featuring Bruce Springsteen.
The events reflected popular excitement about his choice as the first black U.S. president tempered by the fact that the United States is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and confronts its worst economic crisis since the Depression.
Walking side by side, Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden placed a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns, whose centerpiece is a white marble sarcophagus that sits above the grave of an unidentified soldier who died in World War One.
The Illinois Democrat, who is to take the oath of office on Tuesday, made the gesture as his top aides gave TV interviews that emphasized his plans to quell the financial crisis that began in the United States and has spread around the world.
The U.S. unemployment rate rose to 7.2 percent in December, its highest level in nearly 16 years, and 2.6 million people in the United States have lost their jobs in the last year, the largest employment slump since 1945.
"These problems weren't made in a week or a year and they're not going to be fixed in a week or a month or a year," said Lawrence Summers, the incoming director of the White House National Economic Council, said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
"There is no question, almost no question, that the economy is going to decline for some time to come," he added.
Obama has vowed to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to jolt the country out of a deepening recession. A New York Times/CBS News poll published on Saturday showed Americans were confident he could turn the economy around and were prepared to give him years to deal with the crush of problems he faces.
STEVIE WONDER, SHAKIRA, U2
Obama has said he wants to bring U.S. combat forces out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office, but his ability to do so hinges on violence in the country continuing to decline and on the capabilities of Iraqi security forces.
He has also has committed to sending more U.S. forces to Afghanistan to tackle insurgent violence that has risen in recent years.
"Only a handful of times in our history has a generation been confronted with challenges so vast," he said on Saturday as he began a train journey from Philadelphia to Washington.
"A nation at war, an economy in turmoil, an American Dream that feels like its slipping away," he added.
Obama's carefully staged train trip was designed to recall the 1861 rail journey to the capital by Abraham Lincoln before he entered the White House. Obama frequently evokes Lincoln, a fellow resident of Illinois, who led the United States during the Civil War and ended slavery in America.
As Obama drove to the cemetery in Arlington, Virginia and then through downtown Washington to attend a Baptist church service, groups of people gathered along the streets to wave and cheer has his motorcade passed.
Later on Sunday he was to attend an outdoor concert at Washington's neoclassical Lincoln Memorial with scheduled performances by Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Shakira and U2.
The concert, expected to be attended by tens of thousands despite unusually cold weather in Washington, is one of a series of parties and celebrations leading up to Tuesday's ceremony where Obama will take the oath of office.
Thousands of people have begun streaming into Washington for the event, which is expected to be viewed by 1 million people from the National Mall, a vast green surrounded by museums and monuments.
Obama's swearing-in will cap a relatively smooth transition marred by a few missteps, including the revelation his choice for treasury secretary, New York Federal Reserve Bank President Timothy Geithner, failed to pay thousands of dollars in taxes.
Obama "absolutely" stands behind Geithner despite his having made a "big mistake," the president-elect's incoming White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, told NBC's "Meet the Press" program.
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