Overview of the New Report on the Obama Presidency

They came to Washington in numbers unprecedented and with enthusiasm unbounded to bear witness and be a part of history: the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama on Jan. 20, 2009, as the 44th president of the United States and the first African-American ever to serve as the nation’s chief executive.

After taking the oath of office from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Obama looked out at the estimated 1.8 million people massed at the Capitol and National Mall and delivered an inaugural address nearly as bracing as the subfreezing temperatures.

With hardly the hint of a smile, Obama, 47, outlined the challenges confronting him as the fifth-youngest president in U.S. history. The nation is at war, he noted, the economy “badly weakened” and the public beset with “a sapping of confidence.”

“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real,” Obama continued in his 18-minute speech. “They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America -- they will be met.”

The crowd received Obama’s sobering message with flag-waving exuberance and a unity of spirit unseen in Washington for decades. Despite Democrat Obama’s less-than-landslide 7 percentage-point victory over John McCain on Nov. 4, hardly any sign of political dissent or partisan opposition surfaced on Inauguration Day or during the weekend of celebration that preceded it.

“It’s life-changing for everyone,” said Rhonda Gittens, a University of Florida journalism student, “because of who he is, because of how he represents everyone.” Gittens traveled to Washington with some 50 other members of the school’s black student union.

The inaugural crowd included tens of thousands clustered on side streets after the U.S. Park Police determined the mall had reached capacity. The crowd was bigger than for any previous inauguration -- at least three times larger than when the outgoing president, George W. Bush, had first taken the oath of office eight years earlier. The total number also exceeded independent estimates cited for any of Washington’s protest marches or state occasions in the past.

The spectators came from all over the country and from many foreign lands. “He’s bringing change here,” said Clayton Preira, a young Brazilian accompanying three fellow students on a two-month visit to the United States. “He’s bringing change all over the world.” The spectators were of all ages, but overall the crowd seemed disproportionately young. “He really speaks to young people,” said Christian McLaren, a white University of Florida student.

Most obviously and most significantly, the crowd was racially and ethnically diverse -- just like the new first family. Obama himself is the son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother. His wife Michelle, he often remarks, carries in her the blood of slaves and of slave owners. Among those behind the first lady on the dais were Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, whose father was Indonesian, and her husband, Konrad Ng, a Chinese-American. Some of Obama’s relatives from Kenya came as well, wearing colorful African garb.

The vast numbers of black Americans often gave the event the air of an old-time church revival. In quieter moments, many struggled to find the words to convey the significance, both historic and personal. “It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Douglas Collier, a photographer from Detroit, remarked several hours later.

David Moses, a health-care supervisor in New York City, carried with him a picture of his late father, who had encouraged him and his brother to join the anti-segregation sit-ins of the early 1960s in their native South Carolina. “It’s the culmination of a long struggle,” Moses said, “that still has a long way to go.”

Shannon Simmons, who had not yet been born when Congress passed major civil rights legislation in the 1960s, brought her 12-year-old daughter from their home in New Orleans. “It’s historic,” said Simmons, who made monthly contributions to the Obama campaign. “It’s about race, but it’s more than that. I believe he can bring about change.”

For black Americans, old and young alike, the inauguration embodied the lesson that Obama himself had often articulated -- that no door need be viewed as closed to any American, regardless of race. For Obama himself, the inauguration climaxed a quest that took him from the Illinois legislature to the White House in only 12 years.

To win the presidency, Obama had to defy political oddsmakers by defeating then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady, for the Democratic nomination and then beating McCain, the veteran Arizona senator and Vietnam War hero. Obama campaigned hard against the Bush administration’s record, blaming Bush, among other things, for mismanaging the U.S. economy as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After a nod to Bush’s record of service and help during the transition, Obama hinted at some of those criticisms in his address. “The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous,” he declared, referencing tax cuts enacted in Bush’s first year in office that Obama had called for repealing.

On national defense, “we reject the false choice between our safety and our ideals,” Obama continued. The Bush administration had come under fierce attack from civil liberties and human rights advocates for aggressive detention and interrogation policies adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

Despite the attacks, Obama also sounded conservative notes throughout the speech, blaming economic woes in part on a “collective failure to make hard choices” and calling for “a new era of responsibility.” Republicans in the audience were pleased. “He wasn’t pointing fingers just toward Bush,” said Rhonda Hamlin, a social worker from Alexandria, Va. “He was pointing fingers toward all of us.”

With the inauguration behind him, Obama went quickly to work. Within hours, the administration moved to institute a 120-day moratorium on legal proceedings against the approximately 245 detainees still being held at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Obama had repeatedly pledged during the campaign to close the prison; two days later he signed a second decree, ordering that the camp be closed within one year.

Then on his first full day as president, Obama on Jan. 21 issued stringent ethics rules for administration officials and conferred separately with his top economic and military advisers to begin mapping plans to try to lift the U.S. economy out of its yearlong recession and bring successful conclusions to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By then, the Inauguration Day truce in partisan conflict was beginning to break down. House Republicans pointed to a Congressional Budget Office study questioning the likely impact of the Democrats’ $825-billion economic stimulus package, weighted toward spending instead of tax cuts. “The money that they’re going to throw out the door, at the end of the day, is not going to work,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., a member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

The partisan division raised questions whether Democratic leaders could stick to the promised schedule of getting a stimulus plan to Obama’s desk for his signature by the time of the Presidents’ Day congressional recess in mid-February. More broadly, the Republicans’ stance presaged continuing difficulties for Obama as he turned to other ambitious agenda items, including his repeated pledge to overhaul the nation’s health-care system.

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