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Obama rolls into Washington, urges public to be hopeful

BARACK Obama arrived in Washington at the end of a whistle-stop train trip along the frigid mid-Atlantic seaboard that tracked Abraham Lincoln's historic route and brought the president-elect a step closer to inauguration.

Celebratory crowds braved subfreezing weather to salute Obama along his 220-kilometer journey to the US capital from Philadelphia.

He will take the oath of office in three days, succeeding President George W. Bush.

At the start, Obama promised to bring the country "a new Declaration of Independence" -- free from small thinking, prejudice and bigotry.

The trip included a stop in Delaware to pick up Vice President-elect Joe Biden and a stop in Baltimore for a speech in which he pleaded "let us seek together a better life in our time."

Obama invoked a grand heritage of American giants as he appealed "not to our easy instincts but to our better angels," an echo of Lincoln's first inaugural address. He took note of the enormous challenges that lie ahead and promised to act with "fierce urgency," a phrase often used by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The president-elect's triumphant day -- heralded along the 220-kilometer rail route -- was the kickoff to inaugural events leading to Obama's swearing-in Tuesday as the first black US president.

Riding a vintage railcar on his whistle-stop trip, Obama carried with him the hopes of a nation weary of war, frightened of recession and searching for better days.

Biden spoke for many when he said he was excitedly looking forward to Tuesday's inaugural. Then, sobered by the challenges of governing, Biden added: "I think it's Wednesday we need to be ready."

Obama was smiling and confident throughout the day and across the miles, reaching at each stop for history's lessons. In Philadelphia, he noted the risks taken by the men who declared America independent from Britain. In Wilmington, he applauded the state that first ratified the Constitution. And in Baltimore, he hailed the troops at Fort McHenry who beat back the British navy and inspired the poem that became "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Obama also made it clear he was aware of the challenges his presidency will face.

He cited the faltering economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- "one that needs to be ended responsibly, one that needs to be waged wisely" -- the threat of global warming and US dependence on foreign oil.

He told the crowd in Philadelphia that the same idealism displayed by the nation's founders was needed to tackle the difficulties of today.

"We recognize that such enormous challenges will not be solved quickly," Obama said. "There will be false starts and setbacks, frustrations and disappointments. And we will be called to show patience even as we act with fierce urgency."

In Washington, a top adviser to Barack Obama said yesterday that the soon-to-be president will convene a meeting of high-ranking military officers to discuss the Iraq war and other issues on his first full day in office.

The adviser said Wednesday's meeting will involve the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military commanders and aides. The adviser would speak only on condition of anonymity because the meeting has not been formally announced.

Obama's blue rail car was tacked onto the back of a 10-car Amtrak train filled with hundreds of guests, reporters and staff for the ride to Washington.

Along the way, Obama and his wife, Michelle, appeared on the back balcony periodically to wave to shivering crowds bundled up in blankets and parkas who had gathered by the dozens, the hundreds and more along the route.

One held a sign that read, "Happy Birthday Michelle," taking note of the future first lady's 45th birthday. Another, in Delaware, waved a placard that said, "We came from Massachusetts 2 C U."

The well-wishers hoped not just for a glimpse of the 44th president-in-waiting but for a cameo role in history.

Joan Schiff, 47, a small business owner who campaigned for Obama, turned out for his departure from Philadelphia.

"At some point, you look up and think, 'I am in a moment,"' she said.

Carolyn Tyson, 55, came from Medford, New Jersey, to catch Obama's stop in Wilmington, Delaware.

"It's unreal, it's surreal," she said of Obama's election. Tyson, who is black, said she never thought she'd see a president of color.

The celebratory air was tempered, however, by the tumult of the times, and Obama was quick to acknowledge them.

While talking about the future, Obama reflected on the past, echoing the words of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln and President John F. Kennedy. He cited the founding fathers who risked everything with no assurance of success in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776:

"They were willing to put all they were and all they had on the line -- their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor _ for a set of ideals that continue to light the world: That we are equal. That our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness come not from our laws, but from our maker. And that a government of, by, and for the people can endure."

The president-elect's triumphant day started with a sober discussion of the country's future with 41 people he met during his long quest for the White House. Preparing to board the train, Obama said that "what's required is a new declaration of independence _ from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry."

Obama disembarked briefly in Baltimore to address a frozen-but-hearty crowd of more than 40,000, echoing his earlier remarks and alluding to the patriots who defended nearby Fort McHenry against the British and inspired the poem that became "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"We are here today not simply to pay tribute to those patriots who founded our nation in Philadelphia or defended it in Baltimore, but to take up the cause for which they gave so much," he said.


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