Thousands of Americans have travelled to Washington DC this week to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama as the new US president.
The official ceremony was still taking place as Socialist Worker went to press, but the celebrations had already begun.
And they were by no means confined to the concerts, dinners and glitzy balls being held in the capital city.
There were 3,000 inauguration celebrations across the US alone, including simultaneous screenings in cinemas nationwide.
And the faces of those heading to the inauguration told a story – the same story as on election night last year.
Most Americans – young and old, black and white – are united in hope, expectation and an overwhelming desire for change.
The importance of the moment won’t be lost on the black voters who backed Obama so overwhelmingly.
Few are likely to believe that Obama’s election signals an end to racism in the US.
But the inauguration of a black man as president of the most powerful nation in the world – one that was built on slavery – carries a huge symbolism that resonates with oppressed people everywhere.
Yet the popular enthusiasm for Obama is coupled with serious expectations that he must act urgently to improve things for working people.
Thousands of people across the US are weary with war and angry at rising unemployment, poverty and inequality.
The celebrations around Obama contrast sharply with the barely concealed relief people feel at the departure of outgoing president George Bush.
One fact that fuelled Obama’s rise is a widespread revulsion at Bush and all he stands for – especially his warmongering and his blatant disregard for the poor and black people of New Orleans whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Obama’s approval ratings in the US have risen since his election in November.
They stood at over 80 percent this week, in sharp contrast to George Bush whose rating languishes at just 22 percent.
Opinion polls conducted in the US in the run-up to the inauguration gave some sense of the hopes that voters hold for the incoming administration.
A Gallup poll asked what were the most important promises Obama should keep.
Top choices included healthcare for all children (73 percent), doubling the use of alternative energy sources (70 percent), cutting a typical family’s healthcare costs by up to $2,500 a year (70 percent) and withdrawing most troops from Iraq within 16 months (51 percent).
Another poll for the Associated Press agency found that 74 percent of Americans believed Obama would successfully stabilise the nation’s financial institutions.
Some 80 percent thought he would improve the economy, 83 percent said he would create jobs and 80 percent expected him to protect the environment.
For his part, Obama has been keen to stress that it will take some time for him to turn things round. He is well aware that he takes office at a time of economic meltdown.
Unemployment is spiralling ever higher, the car industry is in crisis, home repossessions are rocketing and the banking system is in chaos.
Obama also has to deal with two increasingly unpopular US-led occupations and the legacy of Bush’s support for Israel’s assault on Gaza.
His silence over the slaughter in Gaza in the weeks leading up to the inauguration will have angered many of his supporters.
Nevertheless, it is a sign of the political shift that has taken place that Obama has had to fudge the Gaza issue rather than simply coming out in support of Israel.
This does not mean the anti-war movement can or should give Obama an easy ride.
While he has promised to pull some US troops out of Iraq, he is committed to boosting occupation forces in Afghanistan.
At the Washington concert before the inauguration, Obama warned a 750,000 strong crowd, “In the course of our history, only a handful of generations have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now. Our nation is at war. Our economy is in crisis.
“Millions of Americans are losing their jobs and their homes, They’re worried about how they’ll afford college for their kids or pay the stack of bills on their kitchen table.”
He continued, “I won’t pretend that meeting any one of these challenges will be easy. It will take more than a month or a year – and it will likely take many.”