WASHINGTON — Two days from the White House, President-elect Barack Obama prayed, honored the nation's fallen heroes and joined a vast throng at an uplifting musical extravaganza at the base of the Lincoln Memorial on a pre-inauguration Sunday that blended the somber with the celebratory.
Obama's aides said he was readying an inaugural address that would stress twin themes of responsibility and accountability, and they predicted he would devote his first week in office to economic recovery, setting in motion a 16-month troop withdrawal from Iraq and decreeing a code of ethics for his administration.
With the economy weak and growing weaker, banks in trouble and joblessness rising, Obama's team was careful to warn against any expectation that he would be a miracle worker once in office. "I think it's fair to say that it's going to take not months but years to really turn this around," said David Axelrod, a political strategist expected to have White House space mere paces from the Oval Office.
On a cold, gray morning, Obama and Vice President-elect Joseph Biden laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington. The two men placed their hands over their hearts as a uniformed bugler played taps in a serious opening to a festive day.
The scene was quite different at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, where Obama and his family attended Sunday services and the pastor, Derrick Hawkins, deadpanned it was "just another typical Sunday."
The congregation erupted in applause when the president-elect, his wife Michelle, and their daughters Sasha and Malia walked in. Children sang and spoke selected readings that recalled the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"Martin Luther King walked so that Barack Obama could run," said one boy. "Barack Obama ran so that all children could fly," added another, standing a few feet away from the first African-American elected president.
Beginning with the juxtaposition of the King birthday holiday one day shy of Inauguration Day, the symbolism was hard to miss.
The main event of the day was a concert that drew a crowd measured in the hundreds of thousands to an area that is hallowed ground.
Lincoln, the president who freed the slaves, towers from within the memorial built to honor him. In another era the same site hosted the black singer Marian Anderson after she was denied the use of a concert hall because of her race. King followed a generation later, declaring, "I have a Dream" in a singular moment of the civil rights era.
A huge crowd was gathered for Obama and the entertainment, which included Beyonce, U2, Bruce Springsteen and others.
An even larger audience is forecast for the Inauguration outside the Capitol on Tuesday, with estimates running into the millions. Agencies in charge of logistics and security said they would enforce a ban on personal auto traffic across the Potomac River bridges from Virginia into Washington and seal off a large portion of the downtown area. Access to buildings along the Inaugural parade route down Pennsylvania Avenue was limited to those who gained Secret Service approval in advance.
As Obama moved around town in a pre-inaugural motorcade, his aides blanketed Sunday's interview programs.
With the nation facing the most difficult economic crisis since the Great Depression, they all agreed that recovery was the principal challenge facing the new president.
"What's important ... is ensuring that those that have had the short end of the stick for the last few years — make sure that they get the help that they need, that this administration begins to create the jobs and give some financial stability to families so that they can feel hopeful about going forward," said Robert Gibbs, who will serve as Obama's White House press secretary.
"Three million, 4 million jobs is going to make a very big difference," said Lawrence Summers, a top economic adviser to the incoming president, referring to the goal Obama has set. "It all depends on psychology, but we are going to be leaning forward throughout this administration. The president's made it clear that our errors are not going to be of standing back."
The Democratic-controlled Congress has already made a quick start on the president's recovery program, clearing the way for use of the second $350 billion for the financial industry bailout created last fall, and launching an $825 billion stimulus measure. Democratic leaders have pledged to have the legislation ready for Obama's signature by mid-February.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also endorsed Obama's call for a summit meeting to begin controlling spending on huge government benefit programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. She said even benefit cuts should be included as an option for discussion. "You put everything on the table. The only thing we didn't want to put on the table is eliminating" the programs, she added.
The Senate appears ready to confirm several of Obama's Cabinet appointees as soon as he signs the formal nomination paperwork on Tuesday, although not everything has been smooth for Obama and his transition team.
Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy Geithner's confirmation has been delayed for at least a few days because of his disclosure that he had failed to pay some federal taxes earlier in the decade. Bill Richardson withdrew as Obama's commerce secretary choice because of a grand jury investigation in New Mexico, where he is governor, and Obama himself was tripped up by controversy surrounding the appointment of his successor in the Senate.
Sen. Roland Burris D-Ill., was sworn in on Thursday — and swiftly voted with Obama to release the bailout funds. The president-elect and Senate Democrats had initially balked at allowing him to take the seat, saying his appointment was tainted because Gov. Rod Blagojevich faces criminal charges that he sought something in return for appointing Obama's successor.
Incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said in a televised interview that in his conversations with the governor, Blagojevich did not seek anything improper.
Pelosi and Gibbs appeared on Fox; Summers on CBS; Axelrod on ABC and Emanuel on NBC.