Barack H Obama stepped with his usual confident gait to the podium on the west front of the Capitol at noon yesterday and took the oath of office, his left hand on the Bible of Abraham Lincoln, to become at last the 44th President of the United States, a roaring and jubilant crowd swelling the Mall beneath him.
The transition of power in the world's most powerful land concluded, Mr Obama turned to the sea of humanity that extended far beyond the Washington Monument a mile away and issued a sometimes-blunt call to arms to everyone to "brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come".
Thus, under skies which were forecast to be cloudy but were clear blue, the journey that Barack Obama himself had called audacious was completed. Young at 47 and the son of a black father and white mother, he was Commander-in-Chief. How many of us looking up and seeing his face etched against the white stone of the Capitol façade did not think in wonderment, "Look, it has actually happened".
And a new journey at once began as President Obama, members of cabinet-designate arrayed around him, must strive to deliver on the "hope" he sold to the nation for so long, his promise that the economic slide can be arrested, inequalities closed, civil rights restored, young black people made proud, foreign wars ended and that the world can be persuaded to look up to America, not sneer at it.
Soon the oratory of President Obama will take second place to actions. But yesterday we still hung on his words. "On this day," he proclaimed, "we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics."
To the rest of the world, he had a message also. "To all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more," he said.
It was a speech that offered both new friendship – notably to the Muslim world – and tough resolve to counter those who will still threaten his land. "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," he remarked. He went on: "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
But to Americans, he said, the task of renewal was something to be taken up together. "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship."
For those privileged to be within yards of the ceremony, arriving tardily – say only an hour before the swearing in – was acceptable. A party on the terrace just behind the orchestra was almost in train. Oprah Winfrey chatted to friends and Samuel L Jackson took pictures. To one side, Bruce Springsteen seemed more reflective, chewing gum. Mayor Michael Bloomberg took his seat with foreign reporters. And it was not just looking up to the podium that stirred the heart but turning around and looking west. The millions in the Mall had started arriving before dawn, as the yellowing sky began to light up the dome of the Capitol. From here, looking down, the fluttering of a million little flags held high the whole length of the mall looked almost like the heat shimmer of summer. Never mind how cold it really was.
Sometimes, sudden bursts of cheering could be heard from the far distance, a sound that at first sounded like a jet plane taking off from Washington's National airport. It happened first when those nearer the White House were first to spot the caravan of cars, blue flashing lights all around, bearing Mr Obama and George Bush on their awkward journey up Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill. The cheering then spread gradually towards us, almost like a Mexican wave until finally we all were joining in. For every soul under that frigid sky, there will have been quite different moments when for them, the realisation of what was happening before them took hold, when the emotions began to rise from somewhere inside. Tears flowed at different times for different people. For one reporter who had followed Mr Obama's progress for so many months it came just seconds before the swearing in, when Itzhak Pearlman and Yo-Yo Ma played their strings.
Rosalyn Hall, standing to the side of the Congress with no direct view of Mr Obama himself except through the huge television screen just above her, said what surely so many others were feeling. The African American nurse from Detroit had woken at 4am to take the train to Washington. "I never thought it would happen. Not in my lifetime. Never."
Not far from her was Bishop John Wester, 58, from Salt Lake City, Utah, which is not a state with a tradition of supporting Democrats. He did not say if he had voted for Mr Obama, but today he was celebrating. "It is just wonderful that we have an African American president. He really does bring a lot of hope."
For some up there on the platform above us, the day may have been historic, but not necessarily happy. The silence of the throngs was notable even for Laura Bush and certainly for her husband, George. Dick Cheney was wheeled into sight in a wheelchair after pulling a muscle moving packing cases the day before. The biggest cheers, that almost ricocheted all the length of the mall, came for the Obama daughters, Malia and Sasha, and for their mother, Michelle, now the First Lady.
And finally there was Barack, whose figure appeared on the giant television screens, even before he was outside, making his way down the corridors of the Capitol. In that walk, that bearing of his body, he seemed to show that same certainty about himself that carried him to victory last November and which the country and the world now hopes he can hold on to, whatever battering may now await him.
And that is the steadiness all Americans must have, he said. "Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions, that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America."Reuse content