Tue, Jan 20, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Change is on the way in Washington

The US capital was a segregated city for decades. Now there is palpable excitement that the new president can heal its racial and social divides


It will be a moment of history that the world has long awaited. Today, Barack Obama will complete the journey he began almost two years ago and become the US’ first black president.

After an astonishing campaign that raged across every state in the US, Obama has finally come to Washington to claim the ultimate prize of his victory: the White House.

It will be a moment of supreme change. The era of outgoing US President George W. Bush, with all its controversies and disasters, will come to an end. The age of Obama, with all its untested promise, will begin. The US will never be the same again.

For some, that change is already beginning. In Washington, home to the most powerful government in the world and to some of the US’ most impoverished people, the Obama age is already dawning, in ways small and large.

Nothing spells out the end of the old era more clearly than the scale and atmosphere of the inauguration itself. It is the biggest in history.

“The presidential inauguration is the transcendent ritual of American democracy,” Donald Kennon of the US Capitol Historical Society said.

Never will that ritual have been more emphatic. Millions of people will crowd the streets and attend scores of parties and balls hosted by everyone from lobbyists to the hip-hop industry. A fleet of 10,000 buses will ferry visitors from every corner of the nation. There will be a parade, a free concert in the Mall and four days of solid celebration.

They will all be there to watch a black man take the oath as the country’s 44th president, surrounded by buildings — such as the Capitol itself — that were built with African slave labor. Though a small army of almost 20,000 police and soldiers will be deployed, not a single protest is planned.

In Washington, the sense of excitement and expectation has been growing week by week amid occasional hints of just how big this will be.

Sonya Ali knew someone important was coming to her restaurant when the secret service turned up on Jan. 10. The black-suited men would only say she should expect a “special visitor.”

“I asked them, ‘Is it the special visitor?’” she laughed as she sat a table at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a famous diner on U Street in the heart of Washington’s black district.

A few minutes later, Obama walked in and ordered a half-smoke sausage and cheese fries.

“It was amazing to see him here,” Ali said.

It was also a harbinger of the transformations that Obama’s incoming administration is bringing to the city. Beginning today, Obama is reshaping Washington from top to bottom, in ways both trivial and profound.

The visit to Ben’s — where Martin Luther King also used to eat — was a sign that, for the first time, the man living in the White House would embrace Washington’s often overlooked black community. It also showed that he would be a part of everyday life in this racially divided city in a way that Bush never has been.

“In one week, he went to more restaurants here than Bush did in all of last year,” Ali said.

But the changes go beyond trying to make Washington more inclusive and acknowledging the historic nature of his election. They extend to a chillier atmosphere for the lobbying firms that have boomed in Washington in recent years. They extend to reaching out to Republicans and trying to end partisan divides. The mega-celebrities who have flocked around Obama are also giving his White House a glamorous air unrivalled by any previous president. Certainly none has entered the capital with such a giddy reputation, combining youth, stardom and widespread admiration.

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