Barack Obama rode a special inaugural train into Washington on Saturday three days before becoming president, carrying the hopes of a nation demoralized by recession and entangled in two foreign wars.
A new poll showed a burst of optimism among Americans that Obama can make good on his transition slogan and renew the US’ promise, as tens of thousands of people braved knifing cold to cheer the president elect toward his prize.
“Let’s make sure this election is not the end of what we do to change America, but the beginning,” the president-elect said as he trundled toward the US capital and his place in history as the first black president.
Along a railroad from Philadelphia to Washington, a route once traced by his hero, former president Abraham Lincoln, Obama urged Americans to adopt a new “Declaration of Independence” from bigotry, small thinking and ideology.
And as the train rolled into Washington’s Union station, a short stroll from where he will be sworn in on Tuesday, a New York Times/CBS poll found 79 percent of Americans were optimistic about four years under Obama.
After eight tumultuous years under President George W. Bush, 68 percent said Obama would be a good, or very good president, reflecting the soaring expectations and high stakes for his looming presidency.
In Philadelphia, the cradle of US independence, and again before a shivering 40,000-strong crowd in Baltimore, Obama told Americans to delve into history and draw strength from US independence heroes at a time of rare national peril.
“Only a handful of times in our history has a generation been confronted with challenges so vast,” said Obama, 47, highlighting the diving economy and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“And yet while our problems may be new, what is required to overcome them is not,” he told around 300 supporters in a flag-draped station waiting room. “What is required is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives — from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry — an appeal not to our easy instincts, but to our better angels.”
Exuberant supporters gathered on embankments and at remote country stations to glimpse the ceremonial train, dubbed the Inaugural Express.
“Hallelujah, we did it,” read one poster held up by a supporter, while another declared: “Hail to the Chief” as the 10-car train did a “slow roll” through the Delaware town of Claymont.
Dyone Watson, 20, waited for hours among an estimated 40,000 others to see Obama in arctic Baltimore.
“I’m starving, cold and my feet are numb,” Watson said. “But it’s definitely worth it.”
Will Moore, 22, said: “It’s just beautiful. It just makes me want to do more with my life.”
Hundreds more lined Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue to watch Obama’s swift-moving motorcade whip past on his way to the presidential guest house at Blair House, opposite his new digs in the White House.