President Barack Obama signalled a decisive break with the Bush years on Tuesday, vowing a “new era of responsibility” in which he would rebuild the economy and restore America’s standing in the world.
Moments after taking the oath of office to become the 44th US president, Mr Obama declared the country “ready to lead again” and set out policies on issues ranging from the economy to climate change and the struggle against Islamist extremism
“The world has changed, and we must change with it,” he told an exuberant crowd of hundreds of thousands gathered in Washington’s National Mall to mark the inauguration of the country’s first African-American president. “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
In a gesture of unity, Mr Obama and former president George W. Bush embraced at the end of the ceremony, before the new president accompanied his predecessor to the helicopter that took him from the political scene.
Mr Obama then went to a lunch in the Capitol building, which was disrupted when Edward Kennedy, the senator who had an operation for a brain tumour last year, suffered what nearby legislators said was a seizure and had to receive medical attention. Others at the lunch said Robert Byrd, the elderly West Virginia senator, also had to leave for medical reasons, though his office later said he was fine.
Earlier, the new president set out one of the most ambitious political agendas in living memory, as he declared: “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”
Speaking as the US faces its most serious recession for decades, Mr Obama said the crisis and attendant “sapping of confidence across our land” were “a consequence of greed and irresponsibility” and a “collective failure to make hard choices” and prepare for a new age. His speech explicitly made the case for his plans for a huge economic recovery package – priced at $825bn – and Mr Obama warned that although the market’s power “to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched . . . without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control”.
In an allusion to recent US economic conduct and its role in the world he said: “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility . . . we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world . . . We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”
Making an implicit reference to Bush climate change policy, Mr Obama added: “We will restore science to its rightful place.”
Mr Obama, who takes office with record popularity ratings both in the US and in the world as a whole, aimed much of the address at his international audience, emphasising inter-national co-operation rather than Mr Bush’s clarion call of free elections.