Obama cool and calm on eve of his presidency

WASHINGTON - If Barack Obama felt nervous about becoming president in a few hours, he didn't show it Monday, as he cracked jokes and breezed through a series of volunteerism events and bipartisan dinners. "I don't sweat," said the 47-year-old man about to inherit responsibility for two wars, an economy in crisis and the helm of the world's lone superpower. "You ever see me sweat?"

It was vintage no-drama Obama, who seemed determined to carry his not-too-high, not-too-low demeanor to the Capitol steps for his swearing-in Tuesday.

Aides said Obama felt fully prepared. He had practiced and polished his inaugural address, they said, and he was ready for a string of White House meetings Wednesday on the economy, Iraq and other issues that will dominate his first year in office.

Obama spent the day moving around Washington to celebrate public service and Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, switching easily from self-deprecation to faux cockiness to calls for action.

"Make sure I do something simple," he told volunteers sprucing up Sasha Bruce House, a shelter for homeless teens in one of Washington's poorer neighborhoods. "Don't give me plumbing or electrical work."

He took a roller on an extension pole and began painting a dorm wall blue as reporters, photographers, volunteers and Secret Service agents jostled for space.

"That's a good stroke there, what do you think?" Obama said, admiring the smooth blue coat. "This is good practice because I'm moving to a new house tomorrow."

He quoted King as saying, "Everybody can be great because everybody can serve."

"Right?" he asked the late civil rights leader's eldest son, Martin Luther King III, who was almost overlooked while painting nearby.

"Right," King assured the president-elect.

Obama made a pitch for community service, his theme of the day.

"Given the crisis that we're in and the hardships that so many people are going through," he said, "we can't allow any idle hands."

But when onlookers pushed the earnestness too far, praising Obama's painting skills even more so than he had, he gently punctured the balloon.

"It's not rocket science," he said. "You take the pole and the roller, then you roll."

The day's most somber note came early, away from cameras. Obama spent about 80 minutes visiting 14 wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where journalists were kept away.

At lunchtime, he and his wife, Michelle, greeted several hundred people writing letters to U.S. troops and undertaking other volunteer tasks at a Washington high school. He kept his speech short, vowing to save "the best lines for tomorrow."

A few miles away, thousands of people streamed into downtown Washington and the National Mall, a prelude to the massive crowds expected Tuesday despite the cold, cloudy weather. They represented every age, race and region of the country, but Obama, celebrating King's birthday on the eve of becoming the first black president, spent much of Monday in some of Washington's most heavily black neighborhoods.

Hundreds of people who may be too young, too old or too wary of crushing crowds to brave Tuesday's ceremonies stood on their sidewalks and front porches Monday to wave and shout as his black limousine whizzed through streets north of the Capitol.

As he did throughout his campaign, Obama made little or no overt references to race, emphasizing instead the ties that bind all Americans.

"This country is great because of its people," he said at Sasha Bruce House. "Don't underestimate the power for people to pull together and to accomplish amazing things."

After an afternoon break at Blair House, the official residence where he is staying just across the street from the White House, Obama was to attend three private dinners honoring Vice President-elect Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican he defeated in November to win the White House.