Wilmington (Delaware) : Barack Obama spent Saturday on a train, embroidering an arc through US history that took him from the founding days of the country in Philadelphia to the place where the national anthem was written during the War of 1812, in Baltimore, Maryland.
With just three days before he becomes the country’s first black president, Obama’s journey also followed closely that of Civil War president Abe Lincoln, the man who ended slavery two years after riding to his 1861 inauguration.
Along the way, Obama spoke to cheering crowds who pounded their hands together to keep warm in the minus 12 degree Centigrade chill.
In Philadelphia, Obama called for the country to work toward a more “perfect union.” In Wilmington, Delaware, he ceded the spotlight to vice president elect Joe Biden and Biden’s hometown crowd.
Finally, in Baltimore, Maryland, after a bass singer delivered a deep-timbred rendition of “Oh Say Can You See,” Obama and wife Michelle, and Biden and wife Jill, majestically strolled onto the stage in front of city hall to the cheers of thousands of shivering well-wishers.
The moment gave a hint of what is to come between now and Tuesday, when Obama will swear his oath of office on the Capitol steps in Washington promptly at noon, placing his hand on the same Bible that Lincoln used at his own swearing-in on March 4, 1861, as the country threatened to break apart over the slavery question.
A free music concert Sunday afternoon will formally welcome Obama to town on Washington’s National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial, with a star-studded caste including Beyonce and Stevie Wonder expected to draw 1 million people.
Monday, Obama has declared a nationwide “call to service” in honour of civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday.
Tuesday, about 2 million people are expected to crowd the National Mall for the big moment.
At Philadelphia’s train station, Obama recalled how 18th century farmers, lawyers and merchants gathered in the city to launch the American war for independence despite “insurmountable odds.”
Obama said the current trials were “different, but severe in their own right,” referring to the faltering economy, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the warming planet.
He was confident that if the country displayed the same “perseverance and idealism” as the founding fathers, the problems could be mastered.
“The American Revolution was – and remains – an ongoing struggle ‘in the minds and hearts of the people’ to live up to our founding creed,” Obama said. “Starting now, let’s take up in our own lives the work of perfecting our union.”
In Baltimore, the crowd reflected the largely African-American make-up of the city. Elijah Cummings, a leading black representative in Congress, introduced Obama, saying he “realizes it’s not about him.”
“It is good to have a president who understands that all of this is bigger than him, that understands we are preparing for generations yet unborn,” Cummings said.
Cummings then waved his hand in a large, dismissive goodbye gesture, saluting the departure of US President George W. Bush – to the delight of a mocking, booing crowd.
Obama picked up another Lincoln theme with his Baltimore speech, with an appeal “to our better angels” to declare independence from “ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry, selfishness and narrow instincts.”
Lincoln famously used the “better angels” idea in his 1861 inauguration speech, as he tackled the challenge of keeping the country together and said he was confident the union would survive “when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Lincoln, under death threats for his commitment to ending slavery, had to pass through Baltimore in the dead of night in disguise to avoid attacks. Obama’s journey, while taking place in bright sunlight, was accompanied by similar tight security against more sophisticated threats.
Obama has pledged to make his inauguration a transparent and inclusive occasion.
“The events of the next several days are not simply about the inauguration of an American president,” Obama said early Saturday. “They will be a celebration of the American people.”
In an unusual step, Obama’s inauguration committee said it would open the White House Wednesday, his first full day at home in his new quarters, to “first come, first served” people who responded to the e-mail.
For the first time, there will also be an official “neighbourhood ball” with emphasis on attendance by ordinary Washingtonians.