Published January 20, 2009
WASHINGTON -- For most of the public on the National Mall Tuesday, their best view will be of a jumbo television screen. Hundreds of thousands had filled into the 2-mile stretch of parkland hours before Barack Obama was to take his oath of office.
The outpouring of so many people -- smiling people -- to celebrate the inauguration of America's 44th president by itself sends a signal about the expectations that will tug at Obama once he is sworn in Tuesday.
The president-elect throughout his campaign pledged to unite a country divided over the decision to invade Iraq, the handling of the economic crisis, religious beliefs, race and countless cultural wedges. And as Obama takes the oath of office outside the U.S. Capitol Tuesday, millions of people are prepared to give him that chance.
"This is the least partisan day of the whole year in this country," said Kasey Pipes, former speechwriter for President Bush. "In some sense everyone is pulling for Obama. It's a very unique moment in history and I think he's going to take advantage of it."
With Obama's inauguration just hours away, thousands upon thousands of out-of-towners had descended on Washington, D.C., to attend the ceremony and parade Tuesday, and take part in the accompanying revelry over the weekend.
They filled nearly every patch of ground from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument for the celebrity-studded kick-off concert Sunday, and on Monday crammed into the space in front of the Capitol steps just to catch a glimpse of the spot where Obama will make history as the first black president.
As hope-filled spectators greet the incoming president, Bush will leave office with some of the lowest approval ratings in history. Hundreds of protesters in their final throes marched to the White House on Monday in opposition to the Iraq war. They threw about 40 pairs of shoes at the gate, mimicking the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at Bush during a news conference in Baghdad.
Bush's legacy, though, is unclear, and even Obama has tried to temper expectations that he will right all the perceived missteps of the previous administration.
"I won't pretend that meeting any one of these challenges will be easy. It will take more than a month or a year, and it will likely take many," the president-elect told the throng of people at the Lincoln Memorial Sunday. "Along the way there will be setbacks and false starts and days that test our fundamental resolve as a nation."
But that hasn't stopped him from throwing what amounts to at least a $100 million inauguration bash for supporters, many of whom devoted themselves to his campaign.
"I didn't think I would see a black president in my generation. I just had to be here," said Donald Butler, 20, a University of Washington student.
"I'm just really happy that I'm living to see this wonderful event," said 70-year-old Betty Bryant, who rode a chartered bus from Augusta, Ga. Standing in front of the icy Reflecting Pool facing the Capitol, she made plans to rise at 3 a.m. Tuesday to take her place on the Mall for the swearing-in.
The intense interest and elated mood surrounding Obama's inauguration puts the pressure on him to capture and reflect it in his inauguration speech.
Aides said Obama has practiced and polished the address. The president-elect on Monday exuded a casual and cool mood as he attended a series of volunteerism events to commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.
"I don't sweat," Obama said. "You ever see me sweat?"
Obama visited wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center Monday and also stopped in the only emergency shelter for homeless teens in Washington, D.C. There he joined a group of young people renovating a dorm room.
"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," he said.
That sentiment could be a theme in Obama's inaugural address. Incoming White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told FOX News Sunday that the president-elect would stress personal responsibility.
Obama's work begins immediately. He plans to hold a series of meetings Wednesday on the economy, Iraq and other issues that will dominate his first year in office. Even before taking office, he won approval from the Senate, by a hair, for the remaining $350 billion in financial bailout money. Now he's trying to push an economic stimulus package that will likely cost more than $800 billion.
Crowd estimates for Tuesday are wide ranging, and city officials are bracing for 2 million -- or more. Records were already being set Sunday, though, when the city's public transit system Metro reported record rider-ship for Sunday service. Metro counted 616,324 riders on Sunday, and a spokesperson said the transit service had broken its Martin Luther King Day record by mid-afternoon Monday.
The expectations for a crowded and chaotic scene have made security concerns foremost. Barricades are already set up throughout Washington, and federal officials are closing bridges over the Potomac River into the city from Virginia. FOX News has learned that the bridges are being closed in part so that they can be used as an emergency exit route in case of a problem.
Despite the precautions, no specific or credible threats have been reported.
Meanwhile, the Obama fever has proved a gift to the city's vendors, who are hawking presidential buttons T-shirts, trinkets and warm weather gear throughout Washington, D.C.
"I sold eight dozen gloves, eight hats and eight dozens of buttons, so it's been nice," one vendor said. The vendor said there's "no question" Obama has been good for his economy.
FOX News' Jennifer Davis, Catherine Herridge and Brian Wilson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.