President-elect Barack Obama, on the eve of his inauguration, previewed his highly anticipated speech by challenging everyday Americans to take responsibility for their communities and not wait for the government to fix their problems, while promising to lead by example and make government more responsive to the needs and concerns of regular citizens.
Mr. Obama evoked the spirit of the Rev. Martin Luther King on the national holiday in his honor, calling it “a day to act.” Seeking to inspire the sacrifices and civic spirit that aides say he will call for in Tuesday’s speech, he visited wounded U.S. soldiers and helped to fix up a homeless shelter for runaway teens in Washington, D.C.
He also paired a promise to “make government work” with a warning that “government can only do so much.”
He told a small group of volunteers inside Coolidge Senior High School in Northwest who were writing messages and recording videos for U.S. soldiers overseas, “If we’re just waiting around for somebody else to do it for us, if we’re waiting around for somebody else to clean up the vacant lot, or waiting for somebody else to get involved in tutoring a child - if we’re waiting for somebody else to do something, it never gets done.”
Mr. Obama’s remarks were part a three-day flurry in which he broke bread with high-profile Republicans on Monday night and gave speeches in which he appealed to the high points of American history in an effort to inspire the country to face an economic crisis that threatens to go from bad to worse in his first year as president.
An estimated 1 million to 2 million people were expected to watch Mr. Obama’s inauguration on the Mall, braving below-freezing temperatures and a chance of light snow.
On a train trip Saturday that retraced Abraham Lincoln’s route to his first inauguration in 1861, Mr. Obama spoke of recapturing the spirit of the nation’s Founding Fathers. Mr. Obama called Martin Luther King Jr. Day “not a day just to pause and reflect,” and issued a statement asking “the American people to turn today’s efforts into an ongoing commitment to enriching the lives of others in their communities, their cities and their country.”
Accompanied by Martin Luther King III, Mr. Obama spent about two hours helping to renovate the Sasha Bruce House, a home for homeless and runaway youths at the corner of Maryland Avenue and 11th Street Northeast.
Dressed in dark jeans and a shirt open at the collar with sleeves rolled up, the president-elect grabbed a roller brush and helped finish nearly two walls of an upstairs room at the facility.
“Oh, that’s a good stroke there,” he said as he worked the roller, telling the dozen or so teens and young adults working with him that he used to paint professionally - for a summer job when he was 17, making minimum wage, which he said was $4 an hour at the time.
“Seriously, this isn’t rocket science. You take the pole and the roller here, and then you roll it,” he told reporters.
While photographers mobbed Mr. Obama, Mr. King, who was with him, grabbed a paintbrush and went to work on his own, doing some of the more intricate work around a door.
Mr. Obama said civic participation from every citizen is even more important “given the crisis we’re in.” He said that was one reason to get the youths at places like the Sasha Bruce House involved.
“We can’t allow any idle hands,” Mr. Obama said. “Everybody’s going to have to pitch in.”