PHILADELPHIA — President-elect Barack Obama stepped onto a vintage train car, built at a time when a black man’s ascendancy to the presidency was impossible in America, and traveled to Washington on Saturday in a three-day prelude to his inauguration as the country’s 44th president.
As he did throughout his campaign, Mr. Obama evoked imagery of Abraham Lincoln, in word and deed, as he embarked on an abridged version of Lincoln’s journey by rail to the capital before his own inaugural festivities in 1861. The trip offered Mr. Obama, who on Tuesday will be sworn in as the first African-American president, a segue from celebrating his victory to confronting the daunting challenges that await him in office.
“While our problems may be new, what is required to overcome them is not,” Mr. Obama said. “What is required is the same perseverance and idealism that our founders displayed. 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.”
Mr. Obama opened his inauguration celebration at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, where supporters gathered to send him off. He was joined on stage by his wife, Michelle, their two daughters, Malia and Sasha, and a contingent of friends from Chicago and beyond who have been by the Obamas’ side throughout their two-year odyssey to the White House.
The train sounded its whistle and pulled from the Philadelphia station about 11:30 a.m., with the conductor booming, “Welcome aboard the 2009 inaugural train to D.C.”
Hundreds of people gathered alongside the track, standing at train crossings, in backyards and on rooftops, as they waved homemade signs and small American flags at the rolling train, which is the length of more than two football fields. Those who came to witness the moment, even to catch only a peek of the train, stood in single-digit temperatures, which the wind chill pushed below zero.
At one point, Mr. Obama stood on the platform of the caboose, which was draped in red, white and blue bunting. He waved to supporters and smiled as he sounded the train’s whistle three times.
When Mr. Obama arrived at the first stop in Wilmington, Del., the crowd spilled from an outdoor plaza at the train station as Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his family climbed aboard after a rally. The whistle-stop tour was also scheduled to stop in Baltimore, before arriving at Union Station in Washington by nightfall.
“Sometimes it’s hard to believe that we’ll see the spring again,” Mr. Biden said, speaking to shivering supporters who had been waiting for hours at the rally, which took on the feeling of a campaign event. “But I’ll tell you: spring is on the way with this new administration.”
For all the pomp and celebration surrounding the slow-motion trek to Washington, a two-hour journey that stretched into more than seven, the underlying mood was a far more serious one than it was on most days of the presidential campaign. In less than 72 hours, Mr. Obama becomes responsible for the burdens he has been talking about for nearly two years.
“Now, it falls to us to carry forward that American story and to make it our own,” Mr. Obama said. “Now, it falls to us to ensure that everyone in this country can make it if they try. Now, it falls to us to pick ourselves up, to reach for the promise of a better day, and to do the hard work of perfecting our union once more.”
Jacqueline Tinsley, 56, was among those who turned out to see Mr. Obama as he began his journey to Washington. She volunteered throughout the course of his campaign, well before even she believed that his quest would be a success, and said she could not miss this moment, which she believes will be etched in the nation’s history.
“In all my life, I never thought that there would be a black president,” Ms. Tinsley said, taking her seat in the hall of the train station in downtown Philadelphia. “When he first started, I didn’t know how much of a chance he had, but over time, you could see it within him. I know he can’t live up to every expectation, but he has something that we need at this time.”
Mr. Obama and his family were riding a private rail car called the Georgia 300, built in 1939, which has carried former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton. The same blue vintage rail car carried Mr. Obama on a tour through Pennsylvania during his primary campaign.
“We came from Massachusetts 2 C U,” read a sign waved by one woman as the train slowed down near Claymont, Del., a few miles before Wilmington.
The idea behind the train trip to Washington was inspired by Lincoln, whose presidency Mr. Obama turned to again and again as he explained his own candidacy. While he mimicked the 16th president in taking the train to his inauguration, following part of the route that Lincoln traveled to his own swearing-in, he did not refer to him by name in his remarks. Rather he peppered his addresses with phrases associated with Lincoln, like the “better angels” call to action.
“We should never forget that we are the heirs of that first band of patriots, ordinary men and women who refused to give up when it all seemed so improbable; and who somehow believed that they had the power to make the world anew,” Mr. Obama said. “That is the spirit that we must reclaim today.”
In his weekly radio address, released before his trip began, Mr. Obama paid respect to the presidents who have gone before him and reminded Americans not to take for granted the peaceful transition that is scheduled to take place just before noon on Tuesday. He began by invoking the inauguration of George Washington 220 years ago, which took place in New York City.
“Difficult days are upon us, and even more difficult days lie ahead,” Mr. Obama said. “But as we approach this time-honored American tradition, we are reminded that our challenges can be met if we summon the spirit that has sustained our democracy since George Washington took the first oath of office.”
He added: “Since then, inaugurations have taken place during times of war and peace, in depression and prosperity. Our democracy has undergone many changes, and our people have taken many steps in pursuit of a more perfect union.”
But there was little specific talk on Saturday of the tasks that lie ahead; instead the day was choreographed to take note of the historic nature of the coming days.
“We recognize that such enormous challenges will not be solved quickly,” Mr. Obama said. . “There will be false starts and setbacks, frustrations and disappointments. And we will be called to show patience even as we act with fierce urgency.”
An entourage of guests, most of whom Mr. Obama met throughout the course of his presidential campaign, were invited to come along.
“As I prepare to leave for Washington on a trip that you made possible, know that I will not be traveling alone,” Mr. Obama said. “I will be taking with me some of the men and women I met along the way, Americans from every corner of this country, whose hopes and heartaches were the core of our cause; whose dreams and struggles have become my own.”
There was the Fischer family from Beech Grove, Ind., whose home Mr. Obama stopped by for lunch one day last spring as he sought to show his connection to working families. There were the Girardeaus, a family from Kansas City, Mo., whose living room Mr. Obama sat in to watch his wife deliver her speech at the Democratic convention. And there was Lilly Ledbetter, a woman for whom the Fair Pay Act was named, after her long struggle with Goodyear to receive equal wages with men.
“Theirs are the voices I will carry with me every day in the White House,” Mr. Obama said. “Theirs are the stories I will be thinking of when we deliver the changes you elected me to make.”
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