WASHINGTON - On the cusp of his second term, President Barack Obama solemnly honored the nation's fallen soldiers Sunday before taking the oath of office in an intimate White House ceremony, a swearing-in ritual he will repeat 24 hours later before a massive crowd at the Capitol.
The day began with a morning swearing-in ceremony for Vice President Joe Biden, who began four more years as the nation's second in command. Biden then joined the president at Arlington National Cemetery for a wreath-laying ceremony on a crisp, sun-splashed January day.
Obama and Biden jointly placed a large wreath, adorned with red, white and blue ribbon, in front of Arlington's Tomb of the Unknowns. Placing their hands over their hearts, the two leaders stood solemnly as a bugler played "Taps."
From there, Obama joined his family at a church service in downtown Washington celebrating his inauguration as well as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The president's public swearing-in on Monday coincides with the national holiday marking the fallen civil rights leader's birthday, and Obama has invoked King's memory throughout the lead-up to the inauguration.
The Rev. Jonathan V. Newton, an assistant pastor at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, prayed for God to prepare Obama for battle, "because sometimes enemies insist on doing it the hard way."
Sunday's centerpiece would be Obama's late morning swearing-in for a second term in office. Only a small group of family members was expected to attend Obama's Sunday swearing-in, including first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha. A few reporters would also be on hand to witness the event.
Biden was surrounded by family and friends for his brief swearing-in at the Naval Observatory, his official residence in northwest Washington. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, appointed by Obama as the first Hispanic to serve on the Supreme Court, administered the oath of office to Biden, who placed his hand on a Bible his family has used since 1893.
"I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States," Biden said as he recited the oath.
Among the 120 guests on hand to witness the vice president's second swearing-in were Attorney General Eric Holder, departing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and several Democratic lawmakers.
Sunday's subdued ceremonies are a function of the calendar and of the Constitution, which says presidents automatically begin their new terms at noon on Jan. 20. Because that date fell this year on a Sunday - a day on which inaugural ceremonies historically are not held - organizers scheduled a second, public swearing-in for Monday.
A crowd of up to 800,000 people is expected to gather on the National Mall to witness that event, which will take place on the Capitol's red, white and blue bunting-draped west front. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who famously flubbed the oath of office that Obama took in 2009, was to swear the president in both days.
Once the celebrations are over, Obama will plunge into a second-term agenda still dominated by the economy, which slowly churned out of recession during his first four years in office. The president will also try to cement his legacy with sweeping domestic changes, pledging to achieve both an immigration overhaul and stricter gun laws despite opposition from a divided Congress.
But for one weekend at least, Washington was putting politics aside. Obama called the nation's inaugural traditions "a symbol of how our democracy works and how we peacefully transfer power."
"But it should also be an affirmation that we're all in this together," he said Saturday as he opened a weekend of inaugural activities at a Washington elementary school.
Obama was to take the oath of office shortly before noon in the White House Blue Room, an oval space with majestic views of the South Lawn and the Washington Monument.
The room, named for the color of the drapes, upholstery and carpet, primarily has been a reception room as well as the site of the only presidential wedding in the White House, when President Grover Cleveland married Frances Folsom in 1886.
Obama and Biden were to address supporters Sunday evening at an inaugural reception.
The president planned to save his most expansive remarks for Monday's inaugural address to the crowd gathered on the Mall and millions more watching across the country and around the world. Obama started working on the speech in early December and was still tinkering with it into the weekend, aides said.
The president's address will set the stage for the policy objectives he seeks to achieve in his second term, including speeding up the economic recovery, passing comprehensive immigration and gun control measures and ending the war in Afghanistan. Aides said Obama would save the specifics of those agenda items for his Feb. 12 State of the Union address.
Local officials were busy touching up Washington for the hundreds of thousands of guests arriving for Monday's swearing-in. Work crews were trimming overgrown grass and trash from walkways along city underpasses, erecting first aid tents and setting up traffic detours. Swarms of tourists roamed city streets easily on Sunday ahead of the pedestrian gridlock sure to come with Monday's full inaugural program.
The president launched a weekend of inaugural activities Saturday by heading up a National Day of Service. Along with his family, Obama helped hundreds of volunteers spruce up a Washington area elementary school.
Obama wore rubber gloves, picked up a paint brush and helped volunteers stain a bookshelf.
Obama added the service event to the inaugural schedule in 2009 and is hoping it becomes a tradition followed for future presidents.
Mrs. Obama, speaking to volunteers Sunday, espoused the importance of giving back in the midst of the weekend of pomp, circumstance and celebration.
"The reason why we're here, why we're standing here, why we're able to celebrate this weekend is because a lot of people worked hard and supported us, and we've got a job to do, and this is a symbol of the kind of work that we need to be doing the next four years," Michelle Obama said at Burrville Elementary.