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WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands thronged to the Capitol this morning preparing to witness the midday inauguration of Barack Obama of Illinois as the 44th president of the United States and the first African American to hold the nation’s highest elected office.
Even before the sun rose, people streamed from all directions to the West Front of the Capitol, making their way on foot and by mass transit since traffic was barred from a wide area around the grounds and the National Mall for security and to prevent gridlock due to the multitude expected to attend.
Given the historic nature of Mr. Obama’s election, black Americans appeared to be much more prevalent in the gathering crowd than at inaugurals of the recent past.
Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, were scheduled to meet the outgoing president, George W. Bush, and his wife, Laura, at the White House for a coffee at 10 a.m. before driving to the Capitol for a carefully choreographed ceremony that will climax with a peaceful transfer of executive authority to Mr. Obama shortly before noon. His inaugural address will follow.
But first, the Obamas went to church, followed by coffee with President Bush and his wife, Laura.
They left Blair House at 8:47 a.m. for the short drive in their new presidential Cadillac limousine to St. John’s Episcopal Church, just a few blocks away, for a prayer service. Mr. Obama wore a dark suit and red tie. Michelle Obama wore a sparkling golden dress and matching coat.
As the Obamas sat in the center of a front row pew, next to Vice President-elect Joseph Biden Jr. and his wife, Jill, the keynote speaker, Bishop T.D. Jakes of the Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, read a Biblical passage from Daniel 3:19. He then offered some lessons clearly aimed both to brace and hearten the president-elect: “In time of crisis, good men must stand up”; “You cannot change what you will not confront,” and “You cannot enjoy the light without enduring the heat.”
Shortly before 10 a.m., the Obamas arrived at the White House, accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Biden. The Obamas were met at the door by the Bushes. The two men shook hands and with their wives posed for a picture before going inside for a traditional coffee and a final few moments for the Bushes in the home they have occupied the past eight years.
Aides said Mr. Obama was expected to emphasize personal responsibility in his speech.
“He is going to be counting on the American people to come together,” Colin Powell, the former military leader and secretary of state, said in an appearance on MSNBC on Tuesday morning. “We all have to do something to help the country move forward under the leadership of this new president.”
As a black American who grew up in a segregated nation, Mr. Powell said the inauguration was looming as a powerful and emotional moment for African Americans. “You almost start tearing up,” he said.
The crowd that stretched down the mall was festive and enthusiastic. They were bundled against the cold, with the temperature just above 20 degrees at 9 a.m., and the forecast calling for it to remain in the low 30s.
Mr. Obama’s assumption of the presidency caps a remarkable rise for a man first elected to national office in 2004, winning a Senate seat in a year when he also delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
To win the presidency, he defeated Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who will become his secretary of state, in a pitched presidential primary battle and then beat Senator John McCain of Arizona in a general election conducted against the backdrop of a national economic collapse.
Though Mr. Obama did not emphasize his African American heritage as a candidate, the symbolism was evident and was reinforced by the fact that the swearing in was taking place the day following the national holiday to mark the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King. He will take office less than a month before the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, another Illinoisan who took the office at a time of national turmoil and a man whom Mr. Obama clearly looks to as an inspiration for his own presidency.
“Today is about validation of the dream Dr. King enunciated 45 years ago on the steps on the Lincoln Memorial,” Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat in the House and the highest ranking black lawmaker in Congress, said on Tuesday morning.
Responding to warnings that the huge crowd could cause long waits and security screen checkpoints, people packed Washington’s subway trains by 5:30 a.m., filling all the parking lots at the outer stations; the subways had carried more than 400,000 riders by 8 a.m. An accident halted service on one of the main lines around 10 a.m.
Shortly after 7 a.m., as the sun rose above the Capitol dome, there was a glittering burst of flash-bulbs as the teeming crowd collectively snapped thousands of photos of the dramatic moment. Around the Capitol, ticket gates opened for the long lines that were already waiting. Before long the Mall was packed with people for as far as the eye could see; by 9 a.m the eastern half of the Mall, closer to the Capitol, was completely full. Large crowds continued to stream in on foot from many blocks away, heading to the area near the Washington Monument. On the East Front, where the swearing in of the president used to occur, Marine One was parked in the plaza, ready to be re-designated for the flight taking President Bush and Mrs. Bush to the airport.
Inside the Capitol, staffers were scurrying about putting the final touches on the Inaugural Luncheon in Statuary Hall. The corridor leading to the House chamber had been transformed into staging grounds for the caterers, with huge serving tins of beets and green vegetables. Outside the House chamber, were dozens of cases of Korbel Champagne.
The tables were set with large centerpieces of red roses. And a lectern, fashioned from a brass statue of a bald eagle, was positioned behind the dais. Decorators were making final adjustments to the lighting of “View of Yosemite Valley” an 1885 painting by Thomas Hill that was positioned directly behind the President Obama’s seat at the center of the dais.