Without Inouye's example, "I might never have considered a career in public service," Obama said during a funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral. "I might not be standing here today."
Inouye, a member of Congress for as long as Hawaii has been a state, died this week of respiratory problems at age 88.
In his eulogy, Obama recalled a family vacation in which his mother watched the 1973 hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee, of which Inouye was a member. The president recalled watching "this man of Japanese descent, with one arm," who spoke with such "dignity and grace," and helped teach him the nature of public service.
Inouye "hinted to me what might be possible in my own life," Obama said, calling him "perhaps my earliest political inspiration."
Vice President Biden, who served with Inouye in the Senate for more than 35 years, also spoke at the service, calling Inouye an honored member of the World War II generation that "transformed America and helped re-shape the world."
He said: "Danny's departure marks the end of an era."
Inouye lost his arm during World War II and earned the Medal of Honor.
The second-longest serving senator in U.S. history, Inouye on Thursday became the 31st person to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda.
(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)