Obama on the edge of history

Barack Obama inched closer to making history as he prepared to take the oath of office Tuesday, become the first African American president and take control of a country facing a major economic crisis and daunting challenges abroad, dpa reported.

Obama, 47, was to be sworn in at noon (1700 GMT) at the steps of Congress in front of millions of onlookers who braved sub-freezing temperatures along the National Mall, a vast park that stretches from the Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial.

Obama and wife Michelle along with vice president-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, attended church hours before the inauguration. Moments after being sworn in, Obama will address the American people and the world for the first time as the 44th president.

The Obama couple joined President George W Bush and First Lady Laura Bush at the White House for the traditional coffee, and the incoming and outgoing presidents then travelled together in a motorcade to the podium where Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts will administer the oath.

Former presidents Jimmy Carter, George HW Bush and Bill Clinton and their wives were also in attendance for the oath-taking.

Obama takes office amid high expectations that he can turn around the economy that shed more than 1 million jobs last year and is bogged down in the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Obama inherits wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a bruised US image in the world after eight years of the Bush presidency.

Obama's message of change and hope propelled him to the presidency, but in the days leading up to the inauguration he has tried to dampen expectations of immediate results. He has warned the economy will likely "get worse before it gets better."

Obama has already begun consulting with members of Congress on a 825-billion-dollar stimulus plan to boost the economy by investing in infrastructure projects, developing alternative energy and other projects to get people back to work.

Among the first acts Obama is expected to take is ordering the closure the Guantanamo detention centre at the US Navy base in Cuba for holding suspects in the war on terrorism. The prison, where most of the remaining detainees have been held for years without charges, has tarnished America's standing in the world. Obama has cautioned that the actual closure took take months or as long as a year.

Revellers travelled to Washington from all over the United States and the world to witness history. Many began flocking to the Mall well before sunrise amid some of the tightest security the nation's capital has ever seen.

"I could have seen this on TV but I wanted to be here to see hope, change and history in the making," said Yvonne Gill, 43, a nurse from Notre Dame, Indiana.

Barriers were set up all around the downtown area to block vehicle traffic as the crowd took to the streets and waited in long lines to claim a spot in the bleachers along the parade route Obama will take along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.

Members of Congress handed out as many as 240,000 tickets for seating and close-in standing areas to their constituents who came to town. Potentially millions more spectators without tickets will be able to watch from greater distances along the length of the mall or on giant video screens.

Cynthia McNeal, 50, an African American office secretary from North Carolina, said she came to honour her parents and the 1960s struggle for civil rights led by Martin Luther King Jr.

"I'm here to witness history," McNeal said.

As much as the enthusiasm on the streets was an outpouring of support for Obama, it was also a sign people were ready to move on from Bush, who is leaving office with the lowest job approval rating in decades.

"Goodbye Bush, Goodbye Bush," Metro riders continuously chanted at one exit station near the festivities.

Obama will spend Tuesday evening attending various black tie inaugural balls throughout the city, then will get down to the nation's business during his first full day of office on Wednesday, when he will meet with his top economic advisers.

On Thursday, Obama is expected to meet with General Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, and General David Petraeus, chief of US Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, South Asia and parts of Africa, CNN reported.

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