WASHINGTON - A battle-hardened President Barack Obama sought to rekindle optimism at the start of his second term, challenging Americans to fight together for the ideals of equality and opportunity on which the nation was founded.
"My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it - so long as we seize it together," Obama said Monday after taking the ceremonial oath of office before dignitaries and hundreds of thousands of cheering onlookers packed into the National Mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument.
"We, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it," he said in a speech that argued for a central role for government in Americans' lives, a core Democratic Party principle. "We believe that America's prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class."
Obama spoke of a need to "make the hard choices," on health care, the "long and sometimes difficult" road to tackling climate change, and he made glancing references to upcoming fights over gun control and immigration. National unity, he said, will be crucial to meeting those challenges.
The president said the word "we" more than 60 times in his remarks, often pausing after the word, and repeatedly argued for a more inclusive union with direct calls for equal pay for women, rights for gay couples, and opportunities for immigrants.
"You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time - not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals," he said.
Even as he called for unity, Obama exhorted the nation to rise up against the political deadlock in the nation's capital that might frustrate his second-term efforts.
He urged "collective action" to confront challenges and said, "Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time - but it does require us to act in our time."
"We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate," the president said. "We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect."
Obama spoke for 18 minutes after being sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts against a backdrop of red, white and blue bunting and American flags, with his family looking on. The nation's first black president took his official oath yesterday during a 30-second ceremony at the White House - to meet the constitutional requirement that the president be sworn in by noon on Jan. 20.
Because the official start on the presidential term fell on a Sunday, Obama's inaugural festivities were held Monday, on the federal holiday marking the birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Roberts administered the oath using King's traveling bible and President Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural bible, the same one Obama used for his swearing in four years ago.
The president saved detailed discussion of policy proposals for his Feb. 12 State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. Still, his speech offered a map for his priorities over the next four years, positioning himself as a champion of core social programs while pledging to update them at a time of tight budgets.
"The commitments we make to each other - through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security - these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us," Obama said. "They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."
His speech highlighted the twin challenges Obama sees for himself in his second term: guarding mainstay Democratic programs while pressing forward on more modern goals, including expanded rights for gays, immigrants and women.
"He has become the firewall progressive," said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University in Houston. "He's the protector of programs from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal through Lyndon Johnson's Great Society."
Brinkley is part of a group of historians who periodically meet with Obama, most recently over dinner Jan. 10.