Obama meets the wounded soldiers

Expectant crowds pour into Washington as Barack Obama prepares for office
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The Independent US

The eve of Barack Obama's inauguration was a day of reflection, community service and an unannounced visit to wounded soldiers in hospital.

The President-elect picked up a paintbrush for a burst of painting at a shelter for homeless and runaway teenagers. He told Americans that he needs their help to confront the nation's problems, as he and his family joined the family of Vice-President-elect Joe Biden at a community centre in Washington. With eager crowds pouring into Washington for America's version of a coronation, Mr Obama also took part in solemn ceremonies honouring the civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

Today's ceremonies and celebrations are expected to be attended by between one and three million people. US Air Force jets will patrol the skies overhead, and more security forces are on the ground and water for some of the tightest security ever seen in the capital. It is four decades since King, who preached racial harmony, was cut down by an assassin's bullet in 1968. The crowds are expected to fill the National Mall, a vast open area surrounded by war memorials, museums and other monuments. Tens of thousands more will be lining the parade route to the White House, hoping Mr Obama emerges from his limousine to walk at least some of the route.

Mr Obama, 47, sent millions of emails to Americans encouraging them to help out in more than 11,000 projects across the country as a way of marking the federal holiday.

"Given the crisis that we're in and the hardships that so many people are going through, we can't allow any idle hands," Mr Obama said. "Everybody is going to have to pitch in, and I think the American people are ready to do that. Don't underestimate the power for people to join together and to accomplish amazing things," he added, as he worked on a boys' dormitory room.

His wife, Michelle, and Mr Biden's wife, Jill, took their daughters to another site to prepare care packages for troops overseas. The organisers were expecting 14,000 volunteers working in shifts to assemble 75,000 packages for soldiers in one day.

The coincidence of a national holiday honouring Martin Luther King occurring within a day of Mr Obama's inauguration has only added to the deep symbolism of today's events, in which a black man will be sworn in on the steps of the Capitol and receive the keys to the White House. Both buildings were constructed with slave labour. The city was in a reflective mood for the annual King holiday, which underscored the racial barriers Mr Obama overcame to be elected the first African American president.

He faces daunting challenges as soon as he is sworn in, including two wars and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

In one of the first acts of his presidency, Mr Obama is expected to announce an orderly withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. The visit to soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital paved the way for a series of momentous decisions in the coming days.

"Today, we celebrate the life of a preacher who, more than 45 years ago, stood on our national mall in the shadow of Lincoln and shared his dream for our nation," Mr Obama said in a statement. "Tomorrow, we will come together as one people on the same mall where Dr King's dream echoes still. As we do, we recognise that here in America, our destinies are inextricably linked. We resolve that as we walk, we must walk together."

Members of Mr Obama's new administration are preparing to hit the ground running for the first day of official business tomorrow. At the White House yesterday, Bush administration staffers were busy packing up. The President has kept a low profile since his final 13-minute address to the nation last Thursday.

But he took time for some farewell calls with world leaders, including Gordon Brown, Israel's President Shimon Peres, the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as well as President Dmitry Medvedev. He also spoke to Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili and the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of the closest allies of his troubled presidency.

For Mr Bush's final official act, he will formally welcome Mr Obama to the White House today and then accompany him to the swearing-in, before flying off to retirement in Texas. Mr Bush's approval ratings are the lowest of any recent president, and several some historians have branded his presidency as the worst ever.

With Mr Obama's approval, one of President Bush's final acts was to name the Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, as the Cabinet member who will remain far from today's Inauguration Day festivities in a safe place, ensuring continuity of government in case of disaster.

America passes the baton: How the day unfolds

11am (4pm GMT)

After a morning church service, Barack Obama arrives at the White House to share coffee and niceties with President George Bush. Soon after, both men will share a car for the ride up Pennsylvania to Capitol Hill in time for the beginning of the inauguration ceremonies.

11.30am

On the west front of the US Capitol, Senator Dianne Feinstein will issue a call to order before the Rev Rick Warren gives the invocation. Aretha Franklin will then perform before the swearing in of Joe Biden as Vice-President. Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma will lead a performance of music by John Williams.

Noon

Barack Hussein Obama will be sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts. George Bush's term officially expires.

12.05pm

Obama will deliver his inaugural address to assembled dignitaries, 240,000 ticket holders and a sea of citizens before him down the entire length of the Mall. President Obama will escort former president George Bush and Laura Bush to the west front of the Capitol and a waiting Marine One helicopter, which will lift them up and away to Andrews Air Force base for a flight to Texas and retirement.

1pm

The President is then escorted to Statuary Hall in the US Capitol for the inaugural luncheon, a tradition dating back to 1897. The first course will be served on replicas of the china from the Lincoln Presidency. On the menu: seafood stew, followed by "a brace of American birds" (pheasant and duck) served with molasses, sweet potatoes and apple cinnamon sponge cake.

2.30pm

Obama joins the inauguration parade that will sweep him down Pennsylvania Avenue towards his new home, the White House. It is expected that he will step out of his limousine to walk part of the way. Up to 2.5 million cheering people will line the route.

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