Barack Obama prepared to make history on Tuesday as the first black U.S. president, riding a wave of public optimism he will need to tap to deal with the worst economic crisis in 70 years and two wars.
Hundreds of thousands of people, bundled up against the cold, packed Washington's Mall, which stretches 2 miles (3 km) from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial on the Potomac River, and along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.
A dense sea of people, many waving American flags, packed the grassy plain of the Mall about two hours before Obama, a Democrat, was due to be sworn in as the 44th U.S. president just before noon EST (1700 GMT), taking over from Republican George W. Bush.
"This is chaos now," said Judy Bailey, 42, of Cincinnati, Ohio, as police shunted her further and further away from the swearing-in ceremony. "But it is amazing to be here. This is history in the making."
Major U.S. stock indexes tumbled 2 percent on Tuesday on mounting worries over grim earnings and the health of the banking sector, highlighting the scale of the financial problems Obama will face.
The inauguration of Obama, 47, the son of a black Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, will be full of ceremony, and full of symbolic meaning for African-Americans, who for generations suffered slavery and then racial segregation that made them second-class citizens.
Obama was set to take the oath of office with his hand on a Bible used by Abraham Lincoln at his first inauguration in 1861, standing on the western steps of the capitol, a building that was partly built by black slaves.
Some estimates put the number of people expected to pack the Mall and inaugural parade route at more than 2 million. Crowds clogged the city's metro rail system and thronged the security check-points.
A 68-year-old woman was hit by a train at the crowded Gallery Place downtown metro station after she fell to the tracks. She was alive when emergency personnel removed her, authorities said. The incident caused delays on the Red Line serving the station near the heart of the action.
Polls show widespread support for Obama and optimism about the coming four years of his presidency, despite a deepening recession that has saddled the country with a $1 trillion deficit and 11 million people unemployed.
Getting down to work
Obama, a former Illinois senator who capped a hard-fought election campaign with a comfortable win against Republican John McCain in November, has stressed that the time to party and celebrate will be short-lived.
On Wednesday he will start shepherding an $825 billion economic stimulus plan through Congress.
He faces daunting challenges -- economic turmoil, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, global warming, conflict in Gaza, tensions between Pakistan and India and a resurgent Russia.
But analysts say that at least for now, it will be his ability to revive the recession-hit economy that will be the benchmark by which his presidency is judged.
The Washington Post reported that in one of his first actions as president, Obama planned to name former Sen. George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy in one of his first actions as the new U.S. president.
Obama is expected to meet his military commanders on Wednesday to discuss the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, to fulfill a campaign pledge to withdraw all troops within 16 months.
The inauguration was taking place amid unprecedented security, although authorities say there was no credible threat of an attack. About 8,000 police were deployed and a total of 32,000 military personnel were on duty or on standby.
Obama's swearing-in will be followed by the U.S. Marine Corps band playing "Hail to the Chief" and a 21-gun salute.
Obama, acclaimed for his stirring oratory, was set to deliver his eagerly anticipated inauguration speech, expected to last about 20 minutes, just after midday.
"He is going to lay out a lot of the challenges we face as a country, but he will also remind ... that America has faced great challenges before," his spokesman Robert Gibbs told CNN on Tuesday.
"He will talk about responsibility, particularly the great responsibility in the action of government and financial institutions, some of whose actions have got us into the mess we are in now."
On Sunday, Obama delivered a speech before the statue of Abraham Lincoln, another president who hailed from Ilinois, on the same steps where King made his 'I Have A Dream' speech.
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That address became one of the most famous speeches in US history.
A number of stars including Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Stevie Wonder performed during Sunday's events.