Obama, Biden kick off inauguration with volunteer work


McClatchy Newspapers

President Barack Obama said Saturday his inauguration will be a symbol of U.S. democracy, as well as an “affirmation that we’re all in this together."

Grabbing a paintbrush and pitching in at a volunteer event to spruce up an elementary school in northeast Washington, Obama invoked Martin Luther King – whose birthday is celebrated Monday – the day Obama publicly takes the oath of office for a second term in front of hundreds of thousands on the National Mall.

"I’m always reminded that (King) said everybody wants to be first, everybody wants to be a drum major; but if you’re going to be a drum major, be a drum major for service, be a drum major for justice, be a drum major for looking out for other people,” said Obama, who will take the oath using a Bible that King used, as well as one used by Abraham Lincoln.

Obama was joined Saturday by First Lady Michelle Obama at the Burrville Elementary School event – and by thousands across the country at other events, including Obama Cabinet officials, marking a National Day of Service. The Obamas in 2009 started a tradition of holding a service day the weekend before the swearing-in.

Obama called the volunteer events “really what America is about. This is what we celebrate."

He said his inauguration is will be “a symbol of how our democracy works and how we peacefully transfer power,” but added, “it should also be an affirmation that we’re all in this together and that we’ve got to look out for each other and work hard on behalf of each other."

Vice President Joe Biden, his wife, Jill, and a dozen children and grandchildren joined volunteers at the D.C. Armory for a Unite America in Service event organized by the Points of Light organization, which Biden noted was inspired by former President George Herbert Walker Bush. At his 1989 inaugural address, Bush called on a "thousand points of light” to help others.

Volunteers at the event packed 100,000 care kits filled with necessities for deployed and wounded U.S. service members, veterans and first responders. The kits included lint rollers, dental floss, toothbrush and toothpaste, wipes, bandages and cotton swabs.

Biden called the day “so important” and noted that service members are "not looking for anything, but knowing that we remember is an important piece of the equation."

Biden also invoked King. He said the late civil rights icon instilled "this notion of absolute service." And, he added, “we have to move back to reaching out to people.”

A day before Biden takes the oath for a second term, he declared the U.S. is “on the cusp of doing some really great things.” The country is known for possibilities, he said, “and the possibilities are immense.”

The folksy Biden paused frequently to pose for pictures with volunteers and at one point, apparently unable to resist the temptation, lobbed a bag of cotton swabs at the reporters trailing him.

Volunteers were to participate in events in every state in the country. Outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was to join department volunteers and youth from the Student Conservation Association to work on beautification projects at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial in Washington.

Though Obama doesn’t officially start his second term until he takes the oath Sunday at a small White House event, his entourage was already sporting a change: three vehicles in the presidential motorcade carried new license plates that say: "Taxation Without Representation." – a nod to the quest for full voting rights in Washington, D.C.

The city had the plates created to protest the fact that district resident don’t have full voting rights in Congress, although they are federal taxpayers.

President Bill Clinton used the plates, though President George W. Bush did not. Obama did not in his first term, but after four years in Washington, “has seen firsthand how patently unfair it is for working families in D.C. to work hard, raise children, and pay taxes without having a vote in Congress," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday.

Though attendance is not expected to rival Obama’s 2009 inauguration – when 1.8 million people crowded into the city to be a part of his historical swearing-in -- there was a festive feel to downtown Washington Saturday. Tourists bundled for the January cold snapped photographs of themselves in front of the inaugural parade viewing stand at the White House, and thousands attended pre-inaugural parties.

Some inaugural celebrants partied in style, such as the several hundred attending a California-centric Presidential Inaugural Luncheon & Fashion Show. Sponsored by the California State Society and the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, the soiree featured models wearing gowns parading before politicians wearing, for the most part, off-the-rack suits.

"We’re on the cutting edge of fashion," declared Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Michael Doyle of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Email:lclark@mcclatchydc.com; twitter@lesleyclark

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