Hopping on the Obama Train

New U.S. leaders hop the train in an event reminiscent of past presidents.

January 15, 2009, 6:46 PM

Jan. 16, 2009— -- The incoming president and vice president of the United States won't be arriving at the nation's capital in a private jet or fancy limousine.

President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden have chosen a more traditional form of transportation -- the train.

The Obama and Biden families will kick off inaugural festivities Saturday with a train ride from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., reflecting past presidents' journey to the White House.

Although the Obamas moved to Washington shortly after spending their Christmas holidays in Hawaii, they are traveling with the Biden family and "everyday Americans" by train in the "whistle-stop tour" that resonates the Lincoln aura.

Abraham Lincoln rode by train from Springfield, Ill., to the capital in 1861, making frequent stops in both small and big towns across the country.

"What Obama is trying to do is touch base with these historic characters and touch base with the traditional form of transportation," said Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

Troy said that the tour is designed to take Obama and Biden through "little-stop America," which often feels disconnected from lawmakers in Washington.

It also symbolizes Biden's journey as a senator to Capitol Hill. The senator has said he rode Amtrak from his Wilmington, Del., home to Washington every day for the past 35 years before he was elected vice president.

"The trip marks the final leg of a journey that began on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Illinois and will culminate on the steps of the U.S. States Capitol," the Presidential Inauguration Committee said in a statement.

Inaugural train trips, starting with William Henry Harrison in 1841, were the norm before modern jets gained popularity.

And even modern presidents have staged such a tour to take their message to small towns across the United States.

Harry Truman went on a 30,000-mile train tour of the rural United States in 1948 during his second run for the presidency.

Gerald Ford went on a whistle-stop tour of Michigan with his wife in 1976. Ronald Reagan also mimicked Truman's tour in 1984, and Bill Clinton took such a tour in 1996. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney went on a train tour of battleground states during their first campaign in 2000.

For Obama, who emulates a special connection to history, the train tour comes as no surprise. He has quoted Lincoln in many of his speeches, visited the Lincoln Memorial to get inspiration for his own inaugural address and will eat a Lincoln-style meal on Inauguration Day.

The train tour is an "excellent prop for someone who is so young and who is the first African-American president," Troy said. "I think we will see him again and again using tradition symbols, and the simple fact that it's him standing in front of these tradition symbols will give a twist to it."

The destinations were chosen in keeping with the inauguration's theme of "renewing America's promise."

"Philadelphia, where that promise was realized; Baltimore, where that promise was defended, then immortalized in our national anthem; and Washington, where Americans of all backgrounds will gather over four days, united in common purpose and resolved to renew that promise once more," the committee explained.

The Obamas will begin the journey in Philadelphia, the city where Abraham Lincoln spoke while traveling in 1861. The Obamas are expected to hold a small, ticket-only event at the historic 30th Street train station. A small group, including the 50 guests accompanying the Obamas on the train ride, will attend the private gathering.

Next, they will pick up Biden and his family in Wilmington shortly after noon and proceed to Baltimore, where they are expected to hold a public event at City Hall around 4 p.m. before arriving at Washington's Union Station at 7 p.m.

There was speculation that the two would cancel the public stop in Baltimore after Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon was charged with fraud, theft and other charges for allegedly using city-designated gift cards for personal use when she was on the city council.

But, scandals aside, the train tour will go as originally planned.

The Inaugural Committee said that canned food drives will take place in Wilmington and Baltimore as part of Obama's and Biden's national service initiative.

More than 4,000 spectators are expected to huddle along the 137-mile route in heavily secured streets.

After the train tour, Obama and Biden will dedicate Sunday to the "We Are One" celebration and participate in volunteer activities Monday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Obama will be sworn in as president Tuesday, Jan. 20, an event that is expected to draw more than 1 million people.

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