By Joseph Williams, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- Two days before his historic inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama today honored the nation's war dead and visited an esteemed black church before attending a star-studded celebration of his presidency at the Lincoln Memorial -- a free event that drew hundreds of thousands and previewed the throngs expected Tuesday.
The rollicking concert, titled "We Are One" and broadcast live nationwide, was intended to underscore Obama's call for hope and national unity, twin cornerstones of his unprecedented candidacy for the presidency. The president-elect emphasized those themes in a brief speech to the massive, multicultural crowd, which stretched more than a dozen blocks from the Lincoln Memorial well past the Washington Monument to the National Mall.
Obama, greeted by roaring cheers, declared that because the nation stands behind him, he is hopeful and undaunted by the sobering challenges before him. But he used the occasion to strike another theme that has emerged in his recent remarks: managing expectations of those eagerly anticipating his presidency.
"Along the way there will be setbacks and false starts and days that test our resolve as a nation," he said. "But despite all of this -- despite the enormity of the task that lies ahead -- I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure -- that the dream of our founders will live on in our time."
Standing alone in front of the statue of the seated Abraham Lincoln, Obama said that he drew hope from the great men symbolized by the setting -- George Washington, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech there 45 years ago.
"And yet, as I stand here today, what gives me the greatest hope of all is not the stone and marble that surrounds us today, but what fills the spaces in between. It is you -- Americans of every race and region and station who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there," Obama said.
The event, which featured performers as diverse as hip-hop artist Will.i.am and country star Garth Brooks, was the highest-profile pre-inaugural event so far. The crowds also seemed to justify some officials' predictions that perhaps as many as several million people could gather Tuesday to witness the swearing in of the nation's first African American president.
Obama takes office with challenges that would give pause to most world leaders: a staggering economy, the prospect of double-digit unemployment, and twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The economic challenges were underscored today when several of Obama's key advisers appeared on Sunday news talk shows. David Axelrod, Obama's chief political strategist, told CNN that a priority would be to "put the brakes" on the nation's 7.2 percent unemployment rate, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would prefer that President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy end before they are due to be terminated in 2010, a position that puts her at odds with the incoming president.
Obama started his day on a somber note, traveling with Vice President-elect Joe Biden to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. After honoring America's war heroes, Obama, his wife Michelle, and their two daughters attended services at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in downtown Washington, one of the city's oldest African-American churches.
The president-elect and his family drew thundering applause when they entered the packed church, taking seats in the reserved second row of pews. Obama was mobbed when the pastor invited people to greet one another.
During the service, children sang and gave readings about King, who is honored Monday with a national holiday. "Martin Luther King walked so that Barack Obama could run," said one boy. "Barack Obama ran so that all children could fly," added another.
At the Lincoln Memorial, the vast crowd cheered when the president-elect and his family appeared on large video screens set up as far away as the National Mall. Performers such as Jamie Foxx, George Lopez, and Forest Whitaker delivered short speeches calling for volunteer service, as well as reflections on national unity and highlighting diversity in the nation's history. In film clips, Obama was cast as heir to Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and even Lincoln, whose journey to the White House for his 1861 inauguration Obama retraced in a whistle-stop train tour from Philadelphia to Washington on Saturday.
Today's celebration seemed to underscore Obama's legacy as an African American: In 1963, King delivered his iconic "I Have A Dream" speech from the Lincoln Memorial. In 1968, protestors pitched tents around the memorial's reflecting pool to call attention to poverty in America.
Those at the event seemed to recognize its historic nature -- even those who had to watch it on jumbo TV monitors a quarter of a mile from the main stage in chilly, overcast weather. Spectators, who traveled from as far away as California, Kansas City, and even Brazil, said they wanted to be part of the moment and take in the energy.
Bonnie Bayuk, 64, rose before dawn to make the journey from their home in New Haven, Conn., and stood by the Washington Monument to take in the show. Bayuk, who said she lived in Washington during the tumultuous 1960s, said she'd been to the mall before for anti-war demonstrations and other protests against the government, but this visit was unique on an entirely new level.
"This is the first time it's all about joy," she said.
The full prepared remarks are below:
I want to thank all the speakers and performers for reminding us, through song and through words, just what it is that we love about America. And I want to thank all of you for braving the cold and the crowds and traveling in some cases thousands of miles to join us here today. Welcome to Washington, and welcome to this celebration of American renewal.
In the course of our history, only a handful of generations have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now. Our nation is at war. Our economy is in crisis. Millions of Americans are losing their jobs and their homes; they're worried about how they'll afford college for their kids or pay the stack of bills on their kitchen table. And most of all, they are anxious and uncertain about the future - about whether this generation of Americans will be able to pass on what's best about this country to our children and their children.
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. Along the way there will be setbacks and false starts and days that test our fundamental resolve as a nation.
But despite all of this - despite the enormity of the task that lies ahead - I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure - that the dream of our founders will live on in our time.
What gives me that hope is what I see when I look out across this mall. For in these monuments are chiseled those unlikely stories that affirm our unyielding faith - a faith that anything is possible in America. Rising before us stands a memorial to a man who led a small band of farmers and shopkeepers in revolution against the army of an Empire, all for the sake of an idea. On the ground below is a tribute to a generation that withstood war and depression - men and women like my grandparents who toiled on bomber assembly lines and marched across Europe to free the world from tyranny's grasp. Directly in front of us is a pool that still reflects the dream of a King, and the glory of a people who marched and bled so that their children might be judged by their character's content. And behind me, watching over the union he saved, sits the man who in so many ways made this day possible.
And yet, as I stand here tonight, what gives me the greatest hope of all is not the stone and marble that surrounds us today, but what fills the spaces in between. It is you - Americans of every race and region and station who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there.
It is the same thing that gave me hope from the day we began this campaign for the presidency nearly two years ago; a belief that if we could just recognize ourselves in one another and bring everyone together - Democrats, Republicans, and Independents; Latino, Asian, and Native American; black and white, gay and straight, disabled and not - then not only would we restore hope and opportunity in places that yearned for both, but maybe, just maybe, we might perfect our union in the process.
This is what I believed, but you made this belief real. You proved once more that people who love this country can change it. And as I prepare to assume the presidency, yours are the voices I will take with me every day I walk into that Oval Office - the voices of men and women who have different stories but hold common hopes; who ask only for what was promised us as Americans - that we might make of our lives what we will and see our children climb higher than we did.
It is this thread that binds us together in common effort; that runs through every memorial on this mall; that connects us to all those who struggled and sacrificed and stood here before.
It is how this nation has overcome the greatest differences and the longest odds - because there is no obstacle that can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change.
That is the belief with which we began this campaign, and that is how we will overcome what ails us now. There is no doubt that our road will be long. That our climb will be steep. But never forget that the true character of our nation is revealed not during times of comfort and ease, but by the right we do when the moment is hard. I ask you to help me reveal that character once more, and together, we can carry forward as one nation, and one people, the legacy of our forefathers that we celebrate today.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.