By Steve Holland and Caren Bohan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Barack Obama became the first black U.S. president on Tuesday, making history before a sea of people and declaring the United States in the midst of a crisis that can be defeated with a united sense of purpose.
“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real,” Obama said in his inaugural speech shortly after taking the oath of office. “They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met.”
Hundreds of thousands of people erupted in roars of approval on the broad National Mall grounds as they watched Obama stand with one hand raised, one hand on a Bible used to swear in Abraham Lincoln in 1861, and repeat the brief oath to become the 44th U.S. president and succeed George W. Bush.
The inauguration of Obama, 47, the son of a black Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, was steeped in symbolic meaning for African-Americans, who for generations suffered slavery and then racial segregation that made them second-class citizens.
Beaming broadly, the new president had kisses for his wife, Michelle, and his school-age daughters, Malia and Sasha, then he turned to the crowds stretching away into the distance on a cold, wintry day.
“Obama, Obama,” the crowd cheered.
Dispatching quickly with pleasantries, Obama turned to the task at hand and sought to temper the soaring optimism about his leadership with reality. A Democrat, he took over from Republican Bush, who served two terms and whose approval ratings plumbed record lows.
Obama cited the worst U.S. economic conditions in 70 years and U.S. involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as having placed the country “in the midst of crisis.”
“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord,” he said.
He pledged bold and swift action on the “badly weakened” U.S. economy, a top priority as he works with the U.S. Congress on an estimated $850 billion economic stimulus package aimed at jolting the economy back to life.
U.S. stock indexes extended losses and hit session lows after his speech, which provided few details on how to tackle the crisis.
VOWS “NEW WAY FORWARD” WITH MUSLIMS
After years of tense relations with Muslims following the September 11 attacks seven years ago that prompted Washington’s declared war on terrorism and deeply shaped Bush’s policies, Obama offered conciliatory words to the Islamic community while issuing a warning to those who would wage terrorism.
In a message to the Muslim world, Obama said he would seek a “new way forward” based on mutual interest and mutual respect.
He added: “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”
In his first act of business, the Obama White House issued a proclamation declaring a national day of renewal and reconciliation and calling on Americans to serve one another.
Highlighting the economic problems Obama will face, major U.S. stock indexes fell on Tuesday on mounting worries over grim earnings and the health of the banking sector.
Obama said the economic crisis was a consequence of “greed and irresponsibility” on the part of some and vowed that those who manage Americans’ money “will be held to account.”
He also promised a “watchful eye” to ensure financial markets do not spin out of control.
Economic woes — the recession has saddled the country with a $1 trillion deficit and 11 million people unemployed — have become the top concern of the U.S. public and helped Obama beat Republican John McCain in the November presidential election.
“I don’t care what color he is,” said Garrell Winstead, a 67-year-old real estate investor who traveled to the Mall from Cincinnati, Ohio to see Obama sworn in. “If the economy doesn’t improve and if he doesn’t create enough jobs, patience will evaporate.”
The inauguration took place amid unprecedented security. About 8,000 police were deployed and a total of 32,000 military personnel were on duty or on standby.
The Homeland Security Department said authorities were investigating a potential threat of “uncertain credibility” in connection with the inauguration.
Some estimates put the number of people expected to pack the Mall and inaugural parade route at more than 2 million. Crowds clogged the city’s metro rail system and thronged the security check-points.
“This is chaos now,” said Judy Bailey, 42, of Cincinnati, Ohio, as police shunted her further and further away from the swearing-in ceremony early in the morning. “But it is amazing to be here. This is history in the making.”
Polls show widespread U.S. public support for Obama and optimism about the coming four years of his presidency.
Bush, leaving office after eight years with record lows in approval ratings, was returning home to Texas on Tuesday.
The Washington Post reported that in one of his first actions as president, Obama planned to name former Sen. George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy in one of his first actions as the new U.S. president.
Obama will also meet military commanders on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of accelerating the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, to fulfill a campaign pledge to withdraw all troops within 16 months.
He is also expected to discuss the need for more forces in Afghanistan at the White House with a Pentagon delegation led by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, officials said.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Jim Wolf and Randall Mikkelsen, Editing by Frances Kerry)