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Obama tells the world America is ready to lead again

US President Barack Obama ushered in a new era for the United States, becoming the first black leader of the country founded by slave-owners, and telling the world America is "ready to lead once more" after eight divisive years under George W. Bush.

Taking the helm of a nation beset by economic troubles and two wars, Obama told Americans yesterday that "starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin the work of remaking America."

Before a crowd that swelled to more than 1 million on the National Mall, Obama assumed power over a nation longing for change after an era that that witnessed the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, the beginning of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and an economic collapse not seen since the 1930s Great Depression.

From Kenya and Indonesia, where Obama has family ties, to Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America, his inauguration sparked a volcanic explosion of hope for better days ahead. People around the world gathered in front of their television sets to witness the moment in history, and Obama addressed them directly.

"To all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more," Obama said.

A gifted, inspirational speaker, the son of a Kansas-born mother and Kenyan-born father has raised the hopes of millions at home and abroad with his promises to emphasize diplomacy, seek global solutions to climate change, reject torture and shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison.

His words marked a call for personal accountability and a repudiation of the Bush years.

"Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed," Obama said. "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

Obama's 10-year-old daughter, Malia, aimed a camera at her father as he spoke. His wife, Michelle, leaned onto the edge of her seat, body tensed and brow knitted.

His speech took note of his historic place as the first black president in understated but deliberate language, and he spoke of himself as "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant" yet one who now could take its most sacred oath.

Immediately after the inauguration ceremony, Bush and his wife, Laura, boarded a helicopter alongside the US Capitol, as they began their journey home to Texas. The new president and his wife walked them to the chopper -- keeping with tradition -- to see them off.

It was a day of high spirits -- jarred by sudden concern about the health of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a legendary Democrat who is suffering from brain cancer. He was rushed from a post-inauguration Senate luncheon in honor of Obama. "This is a joyous time but it's also a sobering time," Obama said. "And my prayers are with him and his family and (Kennedy's wife) Vicki."

Doctors said later the seizure had been prompted by fatigue.

When the luncheon finished, Obama lead off the inaugural parade from the Capitol to the White House, paying homage to pioneers who paved the way for the United States' first black president.

To rousing cheers, the new president and his wife stepped out of their limousine to greet part of the enthusiastic crowd that lined the parade route.

Among those following Obama's limousine down Pennsylvania Avenue were re-enactors from a black Civil War regiment, World War II's surviving Tuskegee Airmen -- the country's first group of black military pilots and crew -- and Freedom Riders who battled for civil rights.

More than 13,000 people from all 50 US states traveled the 1.5-mile (2.5-kilometer) parade route jammed with joyous onlookers since dawn. Among the marching bands and military units are acrobats and even a drill team pushing whimsically decorated lawn mowers.

Pre-inauguration polls show Americans believe Obama is on track to succeed and express confidence the new president can turn the economy around. But Obama has cautioned that recovery needs time, and that things will get worse before they get better, and he reiterated that message in his inaugural speech.

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

Obama appeared somber moments earlier, as he stood on the Capitol steps, placed his left hand on the Bible used by Abraham Lincoln and repeated the inaugural oath "to preserve, protect and defend" a Constitution that originally defined blacks as three-fifths of a person. A deafening cheer went up.

He sketched a quiet and thoughtful portrait of the nation as it is, and as it should be.

"The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness," Obama said.

Yesterday's ceremony was the culmination of a remarkable ascent for the 47-year-old Democrat, who moves into the Oval Office as the nation's fourth youngest president. In less than five years, he rose from a little-known Illinois state lawmaker to the country's highest office, persuading Americans that despite his relative inexperience, he could turn around the economy, end the Iraq war and restore US standing in the world.

He vowed to spare nothing to keep America safe, addressing terrorist foes directly.

"We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

And to the larger Muslim world, he promised to "seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West -- know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.

"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

Washington spent the afternoon celebrating with a parade, and the festivities won't end until well after midnight, with dancing and partying at 10 inaugural balls.

Earlier in the day, Bush left a note for Obama in the top drawer of his desk in the Oval Office, following tradition. White House press secretary Dana Perino said the theme of the message -- which Bush wrote on Monday -- was similar to what he has said since election night: that Obama is about to begin a "fabulous new chapter" in the United States, and that he wishes him well.

Bush flew first to Andrews Air Force Base for a private departure ceremony, then on to a welcome rally in Midland, Texas and finally, by nightfall, his ranch near Crawford, Texas.

As the architect of two unfinished wars and the man in charge at a time of economic calamity, the ex-president left Washington under the cloud of approval ratings hovering at historic lows. People in the crowd booed when Bush's image was flashed on giant screens.

Meanwhile, events kept moving: Wall Street slid, news surfaced that US carmaker Chrysler could be purchased in part by Italian auto giant Fiat, and prosecutors at the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, sought to suspend all war-crimes trials pending Obama's guidance.

In one of the new administration's first acts, Obama ordered federal agencies to halt all pending regulations until further review -- this after Bush's final weeks raised heated debate over rushing new rules into effect on the way out the door.

Obama plunges into his new job in earnest on Wednesday, meeting with his economic team and Iraq advisers while Congress gives his economic revival plan a going-over and takes up the nomination of Hillary Rodham Clinton to be secretary of state. Her confirmation has been held up for now by one Republican senator concerned over the foundation fundraising of her husband, the former president.


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