By Abdon M. Pallasch
Chicago Sun-Times Political Reporter
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. defied the cold Saturday to stand in their backyards or at train stations to wave at President-elect Barack Obama as he took an old-fashioned, Abraham Lincoln-style train ride to Tuesday's inauguration.
"As I prepare to leave for Washington on a trip that you made possible, I know that I will not be traveling alone. I'll be taking you with me," Obama told 40,000 cheering fans in downtown Baltimore in 20-degree weather.
"Folks, this is more than an ordinary train ride -- this is a new beginning," Vice President-elect Joe Biden told 8,000 fans in Wilmington, Del., at the train stop where he boards the Amtrak for work every day.
Biden even confessed that some days when he is running late he calls ahead and the conductor pretends that there is "some mechanical difficulty that would last a minute or two" until Biden gets there.
At both stops, people clapped their gloved hands and cheered with steaming breath as Obama ad Biden promised to listen to their concerns and bring change to Washington, D.C.
"To the conductors who make our trains run and to the workers who lay down the rails; to the parents who worry about how they're going to pay the bills next month on the commute to work, and to the children who hear the whistle of the train and dream of a better life --that's who we're fighting for. That's who needs change," Obama said in Wilmington.
People held signs along the way saying "Hail to the chief" or "Happy Birthday, Michelle." Michelle Obama celebrated her 45th birthday dancing with her daughters Malia and Sasha and family friends in one of the train cars. Malia placed a Hawaiian ley around her mom's neck.
Obama started the day in a historic, marble-walled room of Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, telling 200 supporters, "It was here that a group of farmers and lawyers, merchants and soldiers, gathered to declare their independence and lay claim to a destiny that they were being denied."
Moving on to Delaware to pick up Biden and his family, he told people there, "It was here in Delaware where the constitution was first ratified. It was here in Delaware where the first state joined the union."
He told Baltmore residents that Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled banner watching the battle at nearby Ft. McHenry.
The Obamas rode in a 1930 Pullman car called the "Georgia 300" with red white and blue bunting on the balcony. The train slowed through some small towns so the Obamas could step out on the balcony and the President-elect could blow the train's whistle.
"You're never too old to toot the horn. You pull it and, 'CHOO CHOO!' " Obama told some of the guests traveling with him.
Among 41 "regular Americans" Obama invited to ride along was Lilly Ledbetter, 70, an Alabama grandmother who used to get paid less than her male counterparts when she was a manager at Goodyear. She won a $3 million verdict against the company but the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to throw out her case, based on a strict interpretation of deadlines for filing lawsuits. Ledbetter would have had to learn of the discrimination years before she did in order to sue. The Senate last week advanced legislation that would make it possible for people in situations like Ledbetter's to sue
Congress appears set to pass legislation reversing that law and Obama told Ledbetter as they rode the train Saturday that he hopes to have her over to the White House soon to make that one of the first bills he signs as president, she said.
Elected officials all along the route spoke of the parallels between Obama's and Lincon's inauguration, beyond taking the same train route to town.
"They're both from Illinois; he will use the Lincoln bible; He will speak at the Lincoln Memorial. I think he has a real sense of history," said Arlen Specter, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania, who added a bi-partisan air to the Philadelphia launch. Earlier this week, Specter harshly grilled Obama's choice for attorney general, Eric Holder, during his confirmation hearing.
"He's pretty much retracing the same route [as Lincoln]," Pennsylvania's Democratic Sen. Bob Casey said. Casey--an early, crucial Pennsylvania supporter of Obama-- said he hopes Obama's inaugural speech Tuesday can help slow the economic downturn.
"Words matter -- probably more so in a time of economic crisis," Casey said. "His words throughout the campaign inspired people to believe that what was thought impossible is within the realm of possibility."