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Week of Symbolism, History in Washington


It has only been a few days since the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation's 44th president, but already the signs of change are everywhere in Washington.

The Obama presidency began with a simple oath recited on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

OBAMA: "Preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

ROBERTS: "So help you God?"

OBAMA: "So help me God."

ROBERTS: Congratulations, Mr. President."

The sight of the nation's first African-American president being sworn into office brought many in the crowd of nearly two million to tears.

"He has inspired all of us, so come on America, everybody, let's get up and do this thing," she said.


A Place in History

Historians and experts say the significance of the moment should not be underestimated.

"This is an enormous weight that has been lifted from the nation's psyche. And it does not mean that racism is over, but the notion that there were still barriers for a black person or a person of color to ascend to the nation's highest political post is now left behind us," said Peneil Joseph, a professor of Afro-American studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and a guest on VOA's Press Conference USA program.

Following the parade and the celebrations, Mr. Obama moved quickly to take the reins of power.

He issued an executive order that sets in motion the closure of the controversial detention center at the U.S. Naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But Mr. Obama also said his administration remains committed to winning the war on terror.

"And we are going to do so vigilantly, we are going to do so effectively, and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and ideals," he said.

Mr. Obama followed through on a promise he made during the presidential campaign and signaled a major shift to the rest of the world in how the United States will conduct the war on terror.

The Opposition

But many Republicans in Congress oppose the move, including Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss.

"We have got 245 of the meanest, nastiest killers in the world still at Gitmo," he said.

Republicans appear split on the centerpiece of Mr. Obama's economic recovery plan, the $800 billion spending and stimulus bill now before Congress.

While some members of the opposition are open to working with the new administration, others object to the sheer size of the spending package.

Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh wasted little time in drawing battle lines with the new president.

"I will send you a response but I don't need 400 words. I need four-I hope he fails," he said.

But those voices were in a distinct minority amid all the other signs of change in Washington.

At the State Department, President Obama's former political rival, Hillary Clinton, was enthusiastically greeted by employees in her new role as secretary of state.

"So I take this office with a real sense of joy and responsibility, commitment and collaboration. And now, ladies and gentlemen, let's get to work. Thank you and God bless you," she said.

Expectations and Reality

The expectations for the new president are high, both at home and abroad.

But Brandeis Professor Peneil Joseph said Mr. Obama's success depends on his ability to turn around the weakened U.S. economy.

"If the economy starts to show real promise in terms of new jobs being created that are connected to the president's stimulus package, then he will be able to do a lot of what he wants to do in terms of health care, the environment, education and other aspects," said Joseph.

Veteran political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute said Mr. Obama demonstrated considerable political skills during his successful campaign for the presidency.

But Ornstein said the Obama team must now apply those skills to governing.

"And he has started with an incredibly strong sense of how to pull together an administration and a White House. But we are not going to know for some time because running a government is different from running a campaign," he said.

Mr. Obama begins his term with a strong measure of approval in public opinion polls. Those same surveys also show public expectations are running high, but give little indication as to how patient the public will be as the new president tries to spark an economic rebound at home and takes on a multitude of foreign policy challenges abroad.

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