WASHINGTON – Barack Obama laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns on Sunday, somberly pausing to honor America's war heroes in the midst of a mostly festive weekend prelude to taking on the presidency.
Just over 50 hours from becoming the 44th president of the United States, Obama walked with Vice President-elect Joe Biden to the tomb site at Arlington National Cemetery and eased a wreath onto a stand, then placed his hand over his heart as a bugler played taps.
Obama will take the oath of office on Tuesday at a time of heavy expectations and high anxiety, and the capital has taken on the look of a fortress city, in places, with streets, bridges and overpasses obstructed in the name of security. But on television, it was a normal Sunday as a parade of political leaders of all stripes appeared on television to speculate, wax poetic and sometimes question the plans of the incoming administration.
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The temperature rose above freezing, lending a measure of relief from the frigid weather the Obamas and Bidens braved — along with countless throngs of admirers — during a 137-mile whistle-stop train ride from Philadelphia to Washington on Saturday.
Obama's Sunday started quietly as he took a limousine ride to the nation's hallowed burial grounds for the war dead. Onlookers applauded as he passed by. Obama's wife, Michelle, and Biden's wife, Jill, stood nearby as the two men joined Gen. Richard Rowe, commander of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, for the brief ceremony.
Later, the Obamas and Bidens attended church services separately.
At Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in northwest Washington, the congregation erupted in applause when the Obama family walked in, including daughters Malia and Sasha and Michelle Obama's mother. They sat in the second row, which had been set aside for them.
Obama was told anew that his rise follows the achievements of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose memory the nation celebrates on Monday.
When times turn tough and critics sound off, Pastor Derrick Harkins said, Obama should turn to the strength of his wife and to God. "Understand that God has prepared you, and God has placed you, and God will not forsake you," Harkins told the incoming president.
Biden and his wife attended mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown. At one point, when newcomers and visitors were welcomed, congregants laughed and started applauding until Biden stood up. Then everyone stood up for sustained applause.
Obama and Biden were to spend Sunday afternoon at a star-studded Lincoln Memorial concert. A crowd that could swell to a half-million was expected for entertainment headlined by U-2, Beyonce and Bruce Springsteen.
With the oath of office set for the stroke of noon Tuesday at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, the 47-year-old Obama was at the threshold of power, the keys to the White House within his reach. He campaigned on themes of change and hope, and he will have to deal immediately with a faltering economy, soaring joblessness and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One worry seemed to be under control. Obama's soon-to-be White House press secretary pronounced the boss relieved to already have a version of Tuesday's inaugural address down on paper.
Robert Gibbs said on "Fox News Sunday" that the speech would stress responsibility and openness — words that Obama emphasized along the train route in Philadelphia, Wilmington, Del., and Baltimore the day before.
Another top Obama adviser, David Axelrod, said the new administration would approach weighty problems with a blend of "optimism and realism."
Axelrod said a priority would be to "put the brakes" on the economic slide and avert a double-digit unemployment rate. The country is in a deep recession, and the jobless rate — at 7.2 percent — is the highest in 16 years.