Battle-hardened Obama seeks renewed optimism
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.
Patriotic songs rang out from the west front of the Capitol. National leaders past and present - including former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter - were on hand to witness the traditional pomp of Obama's second inauguration.
Grammy Award-winning R&B artist Beyonce sang a rousing rendition of the national anthem, in a star-studded line-up that also included Kelly Clarkson and James Taylor.
Yet the occasion was muted compared with four years ago. The crowd was about half of the record 1.8 million who attended in 2009. Obama's signature hope-and-change theme of that event has been overtaken by the political battles with Republicans in Congress over the last four years.
The partisanship was put on hold at least temporarily today as Republican lawmakers offered the president good wishes and the prospect of collaboration in the days to come.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio - who has had a frequently rocky relationship with Obama over the last two years - sat next to first lady Michelle Obama and the two clinked glasses at the start of a congressional luncheon after the swearing-in ceremony.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia used Twitter to congratulate Obama an instant after he took the oath, and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Obama's second term "represents a fresh start" on such issues as "unsustainable federal spending and debt."
"Republicans are eager to work with the president on achieving this common goal," McConnell said in an emailed statement.
The president has presided over an economy that is still recovering from the worst recession in a generation. While the world's largest economy grew at a 3.1 percent rate in the third quarter, this year will bring growth of just 2 percent, according to the median estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg.
Over the next two months, his administration will engage in a fiscal debate with Republican lawmakers who hold the majority in the House over raising the government's $16.4 trillion borrowing limit, steps to shrink the deficit and funding federal operations.
Obama made only brief mention of issues of war and peace in his speech, praising the contributions of the U.S. military and saying that strong national security doesn't require "perpetual war."
"We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully - not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear," Obama said.
As a reminder of the risks for the United States abroad, the State Department said Monday that three Americans were among the hostages killed at an gas complex stormed by Algerian forces after it had been seized by terrorists.
Obama disputed the notion that the country is in decline, asserting that the U.S. still plays the central role on the global stage.
"America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe, and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation," he said.
The day wasn't all pomp, circumstance and bipartisanship. Before striding out to the platform outside the Capitol to take his oath, Obama signed the nominations of his picks for secretaries of Defense, State, Treasury and the Central Intelligence Agency, at least three of which are likely to engender tough confirmation fights.