Obama rides rails to capital


Published: Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 2:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 2:15 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. -- President-elect Barack Obama, cheered by onlookers along the train route Abraham Lincoln took nearly a century and a half earlier, undertook the final leg of his inaugural journey to the nation's capital Saturday, pledging to reclaim America's spirit but also warning of steep challenges facing the country.

Hundreds of excited people screamed and cheered as Obama waved from the back of his inaugural train when it rolled slowly through the station in little Claymont, Del., on the way to larger crowds at stops in Wilmington, Del., and Baltimore on the route to Washington.

Unfazed by frigid temperatures, scattered groups stood waving at crossroads along the way.

"Starting now, let's take up in our own lives the work of perfecting our union," Obama told several hundred people gathered for the sendoff inside a hall at Philadelphia's historic 30th Street train station. "Let's build a government that is responsible to the people and accept our own responsibilities as citizens to hold our government accountable. ... Let's make sure this election is not the end of what we do to change America, but the beginning and the hope for the future."

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."

Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who hopped aboard the train in Wilmington, said the train ride marked the beginning of a journey that would change America.

"Our economy is struggling. We are a nation at war," Biden said. "Sometimes, just sometimes, it's hard to believe that we'll see the spring again. But I tell you spring is on the way with this new administration."

This is a momentous time for the Obamas. And for Michelle Obama, it was also her 45th birthday. The crowd in Wilmington sang "Happy Birthday" to her, forcing the president-elect to briefly delay the start of his second speech of the day in which he pledged a revival of the middle class.

"When we Americans get knocked down, we always, always get back up on our feet," Obama said.

"We've heard your stories on the campaign trail," he said. "We have been touched by your dreams, and we will fight for you every single day that we're in Washington because Joe and I are committed to leading a government that is accountable not just to the wealthy or to the well-connected, but to you."

The president-elect's triumphant day heralded along the 137-mile rail route started in Philadelphia with a sober discussion of the country's future with 41 people he met during his long quest for the White House.

He told the crowd in Philadelphia that the same perseverance and idealism displayed by the nation's founders are 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."

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 U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

"We are here today not simply to pay tribute to our first patriots but to take up the work that they began," he said. "The trials we face are very different now, but severe in their own right. Only a handful of times in our history has a generation been confronted with challenges so vast."

Preparing to board the train, Obama said that "what's required is a new declaration of independence from ideology and small thinking."

Obama's vintage rail car, known as Georgia 300, was tacked onto the back of a 10-car train made up of Amtrak cars filled with hundreds of guests, reporters and staff along for the ride.

The train was due at Washington's Union Station after nightfall.

At Union Station, as Obama set out from Philadelphia, the vanguard of perhaps the greatest crowd in Washington history was beginning to arrive.

Bursting with enthusiasm, Toni Mateo arrived from Atlanta, where he works at a public relations firm.

"It's going to be life-affirming for me," said Mateo. "It was really important that I come here to represent the family and to take the energy back with me." He said his train car was crowded but quiet until "I just screamed out 'Obama,' and the whole crowd erupted."

Elsewhere in Washington, members of his administration stayed focused on policy.

Addressing the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Valerie Jarrett, a senior Obama adviser, asked for help keeping the momentum going for passage, and implementation, of a measure to jump-start the economy.

House Democrats this week unveiled their version of the bill, an $825 billion package of tax cuts and spending.

Although his path tracked Lincoln's and took on the same overtone of high security, it wasn't the journey of virtual secrecy that the 16th president-elect took so long ago on the eve of the Civil War. Lincoln was smuggled under cover of darkness from one train station to another to avoid a feared assassination attempt.

This year, the FBI has been planning its inauguration mission since June. Large trucks, a bomb-detecting robot, canisters with hundreds of gallons of water to disrupt a car bomb and other emergency response equipment stretch down a block near the FBI's Washington Field Office.

John Perren, a special agent in charge of counterterrorism, said there was no credible intelligence warning of any attack.

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