- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

UPDATED:

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.”

Mr. Obama quoted Mr. King’s father on the importance of working hard.

“Dr. King used to say if you sweep floors for a living, then make sure you’re the best floor sweeper there’s ever been,” he said.

Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle, and Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., traveled to their own volunteer event, helping thousands of others at RFK Stadium prepare care packages for U.S. troops overseas.

The crowd, inside a large tent on the field inside the stadium, turned an assembly line into an impromptu party, cheering for one another, chanting, “Obama,” and singing along to music playing in the background.

When Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Biden arrived, along with Malia Obama, 10, and Sasha Obama, 7, a few hundred of the volunteers abandoned their stations and rushed toward the future first lady. A crowd surrounded Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Biden, along with her 27-year-old daughter, Ashley.

Malia was separated from her mother and surrounded by people taking pictures. The crush was so intense that after two or three minutes, Obama staffers escorted the two girls out of the tent.

Spontaneous celebration also broke out in the streets around the Sasha Bruce House, after neighborhood residents realized that their future president had arrived.

About 100 people gathered, and a group of girls sang, “Yes we can, yes we can,” in unison. Others, waving Obama flags, responded in rhythm, “Yes he did, yes he did.”

Even the usually stern-looking Secret Service agents smiled at the crowd’s enthusiasm.

“This is amazing,” one agent said.

It wasn’t such a good day for the outgoing administration, as the White House announced Monday night that Vice President Dick Cheney will have to attend Tuesday’s inauguration in a wheelchair.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said Mr. Cheney “pulled a muscle in his back today while moving boxes into his new house.”

“Under his physician’s recommendation, the vice president will be in a wheelchair for the next couple of days,” Mrs. Perino said, adding that Mr. Cheney was “looking forward” to attending the “historic inaugural activities.”

The outpouring of affection for Mr. and Mrs. Obama hinted at the response of a city that the president-elect already has tried to embrace, visiting historic black restaurants such as Ben’s Chili Bowl, supporting D.C. statehood, and paying a Sunday visit to the 19th Street Baptist Church, one of the city’s oldest black churches.

Mr. Obama on Monday continued to take an interest in the parts of the nation’s capital that often have been ignored by presidents.

The president-elect’s motorcade threaded its way from Walter Reed Army Medical Center to the Sasha Bruce House through neighborhoods that contain a mix of crime and gentrification. He skirted the edges of Trinidad, which last summer experienced a spike in violence so sharp that police set up checkpoints and demanded identification from anyone trying to enter.

Earlier in the morning, Mr. Obama spent about an hour talking with troops who are recuperating at Walter Reed, a regular practice of President Bush. As was Mr. Bush’s habit, Mr. Obama did not bring reporters with him.

Mr. Obama, in his inaugural address Tuesday, is expected to call on all Americans to do more for their country, in a spirit similar to the one evoked by President Kennedy. Incoming Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said in a TV appearance Sunday that “to regain America’s greatness and continue to move forward and be an example around the world … we need that culture of responsibility, not just to be asked of the American people, but that its leaders must also lead by example.”

The inaugural committee did not release the location of Mr. Obama’s service event until he arrived, because of security concerns.

In the evening, Mr. Obama attended three bipartisan dinners in honor of Mr. Biden, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Biden hosted a children’s concert at the Verizon Center.

At the McCain dinner, Mr. Obama said he would make bipartisanship “a new way of doing business in this city” and that he expected his former presidential opponent to keep a close watch over him, as per the Constitution’s system of checks and balances.

Mr. Bush, meanwhile, spent the morning of his last full day as commander in chief calling other world leaders.

Mr. Bush called the presidents or prime ministers of Georgia, Russia, South Korea, Denmark, Italy, Japan, Britain, Israel, Brazil, France and Germany. He also called two former world leaders - Mexico’s Vicente Fox, with whom Mr. Bush had a working relationship dating back to his days as Texas governor, and Britain’s Tony Blair, who took political risks in leading a left-wing government into the Iraq war alongside the U.S.

“The leaders thanked President Bush for his work and for the spirit of cooperation and friendship developed in the last eight years,” said Bush spokesman Gordon Johndroe. “President Bush expressed his gratitude for the kind hospitality all these leaders showed him and Mrs. Bush over the years and told them how much he enjoyed working with them during his two terms.”

Mrs. Perino also said that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has been designated successor to the president-elect if anything happens to Mr. Obama on Inauguration Day “in order to ensure continuity of government.”

Anne-Laure Buffard contributed to this report.