From Bush to Obama, traditions anchor inaugural ceremony

January 18th, 2009 - 1:23 pm ICT by IANS  

Barack ObamaWashington, Jan 18 (DPA) His campaign promised change and his election as America’s first black president broke historical barriers, yet when Democrat Barack Obama moves into the White House Tuesday, tradition guides every step of the ceremonial day.Republican President George W. Bush will hand over power to Obama according to symbolism and rules that have evolved during the country’s 220-year history and 56 inaugural ceremonies.

Bush entered office in 2001 after losing the popular vote and following a long and acrimonious post-election battle. The inaugural mood was subdued, as it was in 2005 by the errors and tragedies of the Iraq war.

Obama bounds into office on a feverish upswell of expectation, with a solid 53 percent of the vote and the anticipation by 68 percent of the people that the country’s first African-American president will do well - despite the challenges of undoing Bush’s unpopular legacy.

Millions of well-wishers are expected in the capital, 5,000 port-a-potties line the flag-festooned streets, hotel prices have ballooned.

Yes, the moods are different.

Yet Tuesday morning, Obama and his wife Michelle will follow tradition and leave Blair House, where White House guests stay, to attend services at nearby St John’s Episcopal Church, as many other president-elects have done.

Afterwards, Obama, his vice-president elect Joe Biden and their spouses will be met by the special Congressional inaugural committee and escorted across the street to the White House for a brief meeting with George and Laura Bush.

There’s always plenty of speculation about what they say at that awkward moment, but little ever is leaked to the public.

Bush and Obama then ride together to the Capitol for the swearing-in, a tradition started in 1837 and an enduring reminder that the US continues to be a country that prides itself on the peaceful transfer of power.

The formal swearing-in ceremony starts at 11.30 a.m. (1630 GMT) on the West Front of the Capitol that overlooks the 3-kilometre-long National Mall, towards the Lincoln Memorial. On Tuesday, a select 240,000 people have tickets for immediate viewing. The rest will be watching from the mall, with the help of more than a dozen jumbo TV screens.

The celebration is opened with music from Soul Queen Aretha Franklin, violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and others. Prayer will be offered by the Reverend Rick Warren of California’s Saddleback Church, whose selection raised fury among gay rights
activists for his anti-gay stance.

Then comes Biden’s swearing-in, by John Paul Stevens, an associate justice of the Supreme Court.

Finally, in a high moment of drama and with Bush looking on from the sidelines, Obama will lay his hand on the Bible used by president Abraham Lincoln in 1861, and be sworn in by John Roberts, the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

One would think that Obama, with his much-awaited inaugural speech that must inspire and project his vision for the next four years, would have the last word.

But no, a poet, Elizabeth Alexander, and another reverend have that pleasure.

Immediately after the ceremony, the Bushes will likely walk down the Capitol steps and, in what is usually a very public and poignant moment, be whisked to Andrews Air Force Base for their departure flight back to Texas.

After lunch at the Capitol, the new president and first lady, Michelle, ride together along Pennsylvania Avenue ahead of the inaugural parade. There’s expectation that Obama may walk some of the way, as have past presidents, although this makes secret service agents very nervous.

Then, from the position of honour in front of the White House, the Obamas will watch the parade of high school bands and tumblers, floats and performers.

There’s more fun at night, with ten official inaugural balls for the Obamas to attend. No matter how much other people dress up for this occasion, journalists and the public alike are mostly interested in what First Lady Michelle, already established as a fashion trend-setter, wears.

Obama’s only living family member, his Kenyan step grandmother Sarah Obama, 87, is flying to Washington with African symbols of power - a fly whisk and a warrior shield - and is to attend an unofficial ball organized by Kenya, the Corporate Council on Africa and African ambassadors.

It’s not yet known if Obama will visit that fete.

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