By Steven Thomma
WASHINGTON - America changed course today.
Barack Obama of Illinois took office as the nation's 44th president at noon EST in a simple yet elegant ceremony that marked a peaceful transfer of power. He does so at a time of unusual peril, with a sputtering economy at home and U.S. troops still in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The inauguration of the youthful and popular new president - and the departure of the unpopular incumbent, George W. Bush - will set off a potentially dramatic shift in direction on policies, from the wars abroad to the role of the federal government at home, and a change in tone, with the rise of a new generation more prone to problem-solving than to ideological conflict.
At the center of it all is the 47-year-old son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas who'll become the first African American to reach the nation's highest office.
Thousands of people poured onto the National Mall on Monday, spreading a festive mood across the capital city among those eagerly anticipating not only the swearing-in ceremony and the inaugural parade but also the start of a new era. They were the vanguard of what's likely to be a million-plus throng there Tuesday. Estimates of how many people are flocking to Washington run to 3 million.
"I had to come," said Teresa Ward, 41, who drove about 13 hours from Jonesboro, Ark.
"Being here, saying I was here, I'll be able to tell my children and grandchildren," said Lydia Clark, 25, a multiracial woman from West Bend, Wis. "Hopefully, I'll be able to tell them this is when change first occurred, and hopefully there will be many more minority presidents to come."
Obama heads to the White House with the great hopes and patient optimism of the American people, according to a new McClatchy-Ipsos Poll. It offers a stark contrast to the crisis of confidence in the economy and government that's gripped the country in recent months.
Obama himself spent his last day as a private citizen Monday in symbolic gestures meant to highlight the deeds of others, including a visit with wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, working with volunteers at a Washington shelter for homeless teens and attending a dinner honoring his Republican rival for the presidency, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
At the Monday evening dinner, Obama lauded McCain for his war record and political independence, saying he hoped their ability to set aside the heated rhetoric of the campaign would help set a new tone.
"Each of us in public life has a responsibility to usher in a new season of cooperation built on those things we hold in common," Obama said. "Not as Democrats. Not as Republicans. But as Americans."
He also urged that the dinner featuring the two major party rivals set a broad precedent for a capital city marked for two decades by angry division.
"I'd like to close by asking all of you to join us in making this bipartisan dinner not just an inaugural tradition, but a new way of doing the people's business in this city," Obama said.
"We will not always agree on everything in the months to come, and we will have our share of arguments and debates. But let us strive always to find that common ground, and to defend together those common ideals, for it is the only way we can meet the very big and very serious challenges that we face right now."
"We can accomplish anything," Obama said earlier Monday at the homeless shelter, a visit meant to show support for volunteer work on the day set aside to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"One of the goals of my administration will be to make sure that we have a government that's more responsive and more effective and more efficient at helping families. But don't underestimate the power for people to pull together and to accomplish amazing things. . . .
"Given the crisis that we're in and the hardships that so many people are going through, we can't allow any idle hands. Everybody's got to be involved. Everybody's going to have to pitch in, and I think the American people are ready for that."
Nearly two out of three Americans already are feeling better about the country with Obama taking office, according to the McClatchy-Ipsos Poll released Monday. The same number think that he can improve the economy.
They trust Obama more than anyone else to dig the country out of its economic hole, with 44 percent saying they trust him the most, 28 percent trusting the private sector the most and 10 percent placing most of their trust in Congress.
Yet the support for Obama doesn't necessarily translate into support for all of his policies. While the poll found 62 percent agreeing with him that it's necessary for the government to stimulate the faltering economy, a smaller majority of 55 percent agrees that it's necessary to spend nearly $1 trillion to do it. Another 41 percent thinks that it isn't necessary, with half of them saying that it's "definitely" not necessary.
Asked what it would take to restore their shaken confidence in the economy, 34 percent said they had to see their own finances improve, 25 percent said they had to see sustained gains in the stock market and 19 percent said they had to see infrastructure projects start.
Only 15 percent said that seeing Obama sign a stimulus bill into law would restore their confidence.
Still, if citizens are demanding real results, they know that the economic problems are deep, they're patient and they're apparently ready to give Obama a longer than usual honeymoon. While 56 percent said they WANTED to see results within six months, only about half that - 27 percent - EXPECT to see results within six months.