Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States on Tuesday, ushering in a new era with a promise of bold action to lift the country out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

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WASHINGTON — Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States on Tuesday, ushering in a new era with a promise of bold action to lift the country out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Taking the oath on the steps of a Capitol built in part by slaves, Obama became the first African American to reach the pinnacle of American political life, fulfilling at last the full promise of a nation born with the pledge that all men are created equal.

He looked out over a sea of perhaps 2 million people, faces of every color, celebrating a turning point of history and looking eagerly for a new voice and vision to lead the country in a new century.

“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious, and they are many,” he said in a 19-minute address that was at turns sober and uplifting. “They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met.”

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To his countrymen, he urged “a new era of responsibility,” but also a greater role for the government, help for the poor and a stronger hand in regulating private markets, which, he said, “without a watchful eye … can spin out of control.”

To the world, he vowed to protect U.S. security without violating “the rule of law and the rights of man,” and to talk even to hostile nations. “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” he said.

To those who threaten the United States, he said, “you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

The man he succeeded, George W. Bush, watched quietly from his seat, his time at an end and the legacy of the Bush era of 20 years in high office — his eight years as president and his father’s 12 as vice president and president — now left to history.

The peaceful transfer of power was a majestic reminder of democracy at its finest, marking the public’s wish to change course, from one political party to another, from one generation to another.

At 47, Obama is the first U.S. president to come of age after the turbulence and divisions of the 1960s and the Vietnam War.

Shortly after he became president at the stroke of noon, Obama placed his hand on the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln used at his 1861 inauguration and, following Chief Justice John Roberts, took the oath.

21-gun salute

The president’s wife, Michelle, and his young daughters, Malia and Sasha, stood beside him, smiling broadly. Artillery hailed the man and the moment with a 21-gun salute that echoed through the marbled monuments.

Bush, 62, left office as one of the least popular presidents of the past century, economic turmoil the punctuation mark on a disappointing presidency. Eleven million Americans are out of work and more than $1 trillion in stock values has been wiped out.

Bush left Washington quickly, his helicopter flying past the White House one last time, then turning past the Lincoln Memorial toward Andrews Air Force Base in the Maryland suburbs.

He departed Andrews for Texas while Obama lunched in the Capitol. Bush flew aboard the familiar 747 jet but found it stripped of the Air Force One radio call sign, used only when the president — the current president — is aboard.

The swearing-in ceremony was seen around the world, by American troops standing watch in Afghanistan, Iraq and South Korea, and by countless citizens of other countries eager to see the young president take power.

For most Americans, it was a moment for hope. For black Americans, it was something more, the culmination of a centuries-long wait to see the Founding Fathers’ promise of equality fulfilled.

Among those attending were several of the nine African Americans who, as children, needed the protection of National Guardsmen when they integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Also among the honored guests were the surviving Tuskegee Airmen, the famed African-American aviators of World War II.

On the National Mall, children smiled and waved flags. Older Americans with memories of past struggles wiped tears from their eyes.

They stretched shoulder to shoulder for the one-plus mile that separates the Capitol from the Lincoln Memorial, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke of the “dream” of such a moment when Americans would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

“Hinge-point of history”

“We rejoice not only in America’s peaceful transfer of power for the 44th time,” said Rick Warren, a California pastor and writer whom Obama chose to give the opening prayer. “We celebrate a hinge-point of history with the inauguration of our first African-American president of the United States.

“We are so grateful to live in this land, a land of unequaled possibility, where the son of an African immigrant can rise to the highest level of our leadership. We know today that Dr. King and a great cloud of witnesses are shouting in heaven.”

Obama put his achievement in the broader context of the American quest, ever facing new challenges, ever rising to them.

“This is the source of our confidence, the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny,” he said.

“This is … why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

Obama warned that he took the oath “amidst gathering clouds and raging storms” and a crisis of confidence that’s led to a “nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable and that the next generation must lower its sights.”

He promised policies to create jobs and lay the groundwork for long-term prosperity. “The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act.”

To critics who question the scope of his plans — more than $1 trillion to shore up banks and stimulate the economy — he said “their memories are short. … They have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.”

Busy schedule

On his first full day in office today, Obama plans to attend a national prayer service, then meet at the White House with top military officials including Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen; Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the U.S. Central Command; and Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Obama is expected to discuss the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the future of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Late Tuesday, he ordered a 120-day halt in military court proceedings there as a possible first step toward closing it.

It could be months before the facility closes, however, as the administration determines where to put the remaining 250 detainees.

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