Tradition and hoopla for Obama's big day

Last updated 19:10 17/01/2009
Four million people are expected in Washington and parties are being planned elsewhere.

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WASHINGTON DC is in the grip of inauguration fever as it prepares to formally usher into office the 44th president of the United States.

At 6am on Wednesday, New Zealand time, Barack Hussein Obama, the US's first black president, will be sworn in amid a day of formality, fun and tradition that is expected to see four million people flock to the nation's capital to be part of the celebrations.

Inauguration Day begins with attendance by the president-elect at a church service, a tradition that began with Franklin D Roosevelt in 1933.

Obama will then meet George W Bush at the White House before the pair set out together on their procession to the Capitol. Strict protocol is observed on the procession the president and president-elect are followed by the vice-president and vice-president-elect, family members and the cabinet. The inaugural parade follows and the festivities continue in front of the Capitol. Among Wednesday's performers are singer Aretha Franklin and violinist Itzhak Perlman.

At 11.30am it's the swearing-in ceremony for vice-president elect Joe Biden. Then it's on to the main event.

Obama takes the oath of office at midday, using Abraham Lincoln's bible. In front of the Capitol he will say: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

The oath is enshrined in the US Constitution and will be the 56th time a US president has taken it. The first inauguration, of George Washington, was in 1789, in front of New York's Federal Hall on a balcony overlooking Wall St. With the ceremony complete, the crowd let out three cheers and Washington returned to the senate chamber to deliver his inaugural address. His remains the shortest inaugural address in history at just 135 words.

Inaugural addresses have a tradition of producing some of the US's most memorable political phrases. It was where Roosevelt said: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," and John F Kennedy said: "Ask not what your country can do for you..." Expectations are high that Obama, with a reputation as an accomplished orator, will enhance that tradition.

The pomp and ceremony continues after the inaugural address when Obama escorts outgoing president George Bush to his departure ceremony and through a military cordon. Bush and his wife Laura will then most likely follow recent tradition and leave the Capitol by helicopter weather permitting.

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Then comes the inaugural lunch and the 56th inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Ave to the White House. The parade one of the most popular events of the inauguration lasts for more than two hours and includes 15,000 participants and more than 240 horses. It is largely a procession of ceremonial military regiments, citizens' groups, marching bands and floats. Obama and Biden will watch from a special stand.

But the day is far from over, with the highly anticipated inaugural balls still to take place. Obama and his wife Michelle will attend all 10 balls to be held in Washington. The first inaugural ball was held for George Washington and quickly became a highlight on the political capital's calendar. The venues, however, have improved since the second inauguration of Ulysses Grant in 1873, when a temporary building, built especially for the revellers, had no heat or insulation and guests danced in coats, the food was cold and even the caged decorative canaries froze.

Security for the day will be undertaken by 4000 Washington police officers, and 4000 more from across the US. About 7500 military and 10,000 National Guard personnel will also be on duty along with Secret Service, FBI and Capitol Police. All 240,000 ticket holders attending the swearing-in ceremony will be screened by metal detectors.

Life has already changed forever for Obama and his family. He is now the most guarded man on the planet. When travelling in a motorcade there are 12 identical cars to foil potential assassins. Each time the new president has a drink outside the White House he will need to hand his glass to a Secret Service agent who will put it in a bag and destroy it to ensure no one unauthorised has access to his DNA.

Obama also has a set of credit card-sized panic buttons that are squeezed to summons agents one for his pocket, one for his desk and one for beside his bed. 

- Sunday Star Times

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