On his final day before being sworn in as Commander-in-Chief, President-elect Barack Obama took time to volunteer in an effort to make good on his promise of service. Throughout the campaign, Obama would fault the Bush administration for not seizing the patriotic goodwill post-9/11 and calling the nation to service. He says he intends to not make that same mistake.
The day began with a morning visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center visiting 14 patients who were injured in either Iraq or Afghanistan. It was Obama’s fourth visit to the center since being elected to the Senate in 2004.
Martin Luther King III celebrated his late father’s birthday by joining Obama at Walter Reed and riding with him to the next volunteer stop, an emergency shelter for homeless teens in Washington, D.C.
Crowds lined the road as the motorcade, including the sleek new Cadillac presidential limo, rolled a few miles down the road to the northeast Washington neighborhood.
As the president-elect walked inside the home, teens waited inside on the staircase chanting Obama’s name. Obama smiled but went straight to work, taking off his jacket, rolling up his sleeves, and then evoking the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve,” Obama said, standing next to Martin Luther King III, quoting his late father.
“Dr. King used to say, if you sweep floors for a living, make sure you’re the best floor sweeper there is,” he told the teens after painting a full wall in record time.
Asked about his painting skills, he joked, “This isn’t like rocket science. You take the pole and the roller here and then you roll.”
But Obama admitted he had some previous experience. “I did this professionally when I was 17 years old for the summer painting walls,” he said explaining the minimum wage back then was $4 an hour.
“It’s good practice because I’m moving into a new house tomorrow,” Obama added with a smile, referencing his move into the White House. "May have to do a few touch ups here and there.”
Obama told the roomful of cameras as he looked toward the busy teens, “These young people have huge potential that right now is not being tapped and given the crisis that we’re in and the hardships that so many people are going through, we can’t allow any idle hands. Everybody’s got to be involved. Everybody’s going to have to pitch in.”
He emphasized the importance of the internet, saying it can do more than win elections. “We’ve got 5,000 volunteer organizations and service projects across the country today,” Obama said. “The Internet is an amazing tool for us to be able to organize people together. We saw that in our campaign. But we don’t want to just use it for winning elections; we want to use it to rebuild America.”
As he walked out of the front door, hundreds of people crowded porches across the street. They chanted “yes we can” and repeated “Obama” as the president-elect gave a big smile and a wave.
Winding down the street to the northwest neighborhood of Washington, Obama stopped at Calvin Coolidge High School greeting over 300 volunteers who were busy sending letters to troops and decorating blankets for wounded soldiers.
“Both of us participated in service this morning,” Obama said standing next to his wife Michelle. “And on a day where we remember not just a dreamer, but a doer, an actor, somebody who dedicated his life to working at the grassroots level on behalf of change, on behalf of making communities better, on behalf of bringing about justice and equality, it is fitting that all of you and hundreds of thousands, maybe more than a million, people, through 11,000 service projects all across the country, today commemorated Dr. King and got involved in this process of remaking America.”
A group of young cheerleaders encircled the Obamas doing a rehearsed cheer. The girls were embraced with hugs and the Obamas moved about shaking nearly all 300 hands in the large gymnasium.
“I am making a commitment to you as the next president, that we are going to make government work,” Obama said. “But I can’t do it by myself. Michelle can’t do it by herself. Government can only do so much.”
– Jake Tapper and Jennifer Duck