WASHINGTON - Barack Obama yesterday became the first black US president, making history before a sea of people and declaring the US - in the midst of a crisis - can be defeated with a united sense of purpose.
"Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real," Obama said in his inaugural speech shortly after taking the oath of office.
"They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met."
Hundreds of thousands of people erupted in roars of approval on the broad National Mall grounds as they watched Obama stand with one hand raised, one hand on a Bible used to swear in Abraham Lincoln in 1861, and repeat the brief oath to become the 44th US president and succeed George Bush.
Turning to the massive crowd stretching way into the distance, Obama cited the worst economic conditions in 70 years and US involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as having placed the country "in the midst of crisis".
"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord."
Obama pledged bold and swift action on the "badly weakened" US economy, a top priority as he works with the US Congress on an estimated $850 billion economic stimulus package aimed at jolting the economy back to life.
On Iraq, Obama vowed the US would begin to leave "responsibly" but cited no specific timetable.
He offered conciliatory words to Muslims while issuing a warning to those who would wage terrorism. In a message to the Muslim world, Obama said he would seek a "new way forward" based on mutual interest and mutual respect.
He also said: "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."
Obama said the economic crisis was a consequence of "greed and irresponsibility" on the part of some and vowed that those who manage Americans' money "will be held to account."
Millions of TV viewers around the world also tuned in to see the son of a black Kenyan father and white American mother take office in a generational power shift at a time of crippling economic crisis and challenges to US power abroad.
Obama's moment in history was also being closely watched abroad. Pope Benedict XVI sent a message calling on the 44th president "to promote understanding, cooperation and peace" among nations.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he was eager to work with Obama to "change the world" while German Chancellor Angela Merkel wished him "the best of luck".
A BBC poll of people in 17 countries found an average of two-thirds believe Obama will improve frayed relationships between the US and the rest of the world.
But with expectations running high at home and globally, Obama's White House team is pleading for patience as it confronts a groaning in-tray of challenges from Gaza to Guantanamo. - Sapa-AFP