WASHINGTON – President Obama on Monday used his second inaugural address to call for a new spirit of unity to solve the nation’s challenges, from economic disparity to gay rights to climate change, urging a recommitment to the country’s founding principles of equality.
“Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people,” Obama said on a sunny, brisk morning, after repeating the oath of office before a crowd of hundreds of thousands.
Obama appealed for cooperation even as he made clear that he was prepared to fight for a liberal agenda, saying that a new brand of bipartisanship is needed.
“We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time,” Obama said. “We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher.”
He also proclaimed his intent to protect a series of social programs—including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security—and in the process took a swipe at Republicans who contend the social safety net breeds dependency.
“These things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us,” Obama said. In what some might interpret as a rebuff to the rhetoric of Mitt Romney, the failed Republican presidential nominee, Obama continued: “They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this county great.”
In a historic moment, Obama spoke passionately about the need to ensure equal treatment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans. He equated theirs to the struggles of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and efforts of women a century ago to secure the right to vote. In the same sentence as the past civil rights struggles he noted a landmark event in the fight for gay rights: the uprising at the Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar that was raided by police in 1969.
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a [Martin Luther] King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” he added.
In another signal of what he will try to purse in a second term, Obama also urged action on climate change, an issue likely to engender deep partisan resistance.
“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms,” Obama said, calling on America to lead the search for sustainable resources.
“The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult,” he said. “But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.”
Obama also pledged to protect American security after a decade of war but, in a nod to forceful diplomacy, he declared that “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
He continued: “Our brave men and women in uniform, tempered by the flames of battle, are unmatched in skill and courage. Our citizens, seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty. The knowledge of their sacrifice will keep us forever vigilant against those who would do us harm. But we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.”
Placing his left hand on a stack of Bibles – one belonging to President Abraham Lincoln, the other to Martin Luther King, Jr.—Obama was administered the constitutional oath by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.
The swearing in was ceremonial; Obama had taken the official oath on Sunday in a private White House ceremony. The constitution says that presidents begin their terms on Jan. 20, but when that date falls on a Sunday – as it has six times before – the ceremony is typically done privately before a more elaborate inauguration the following Monday.
Obama’s inauguration speech – which was crafted by Jon Favreau, 31, from North Reading, Mass., who has channeled Obama’s words for nearly eight years — was a blueprint for how Obama hopes to use his political capital, won through a reaffirmation by millions of voters, before it diminishes over the next four years.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has often spoken harshly about the president, offered Obama congratulations in a statement wishing him well in “fulfillment of his duty to lead the U.S. at home and abroad over the next four years.”
“The President’s second term represents a fresh start when it comes to dealing with the great challenges of our day; particularly, the transcendent challenge of unsustainable federal spending and debt,” McConnell said. “Republicans are eager to work with the President on achieving this common goal, and we firmly believe that divided government provides the perfect opportunity to do so. Together, there is much we can achieve.”
The inauguration ritual culminated a divisive reelection campaign and marked the beginning of a four-year term in which Obama will attempt to build upon his first-term legacy of health care reform, financial regulations, the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and the killing of Osama bin Laden. It has also been marked by resistance from Republicans who say he is unwilling to make significant budget cuts, and oversees an insular White House.
As Obama begins his second term, the expectations for what he will be able to achieve are far less lofty – some might say far more realistic – than they were when he first took office four years ago.
The festive mood on the national Mall was not as overwhelming as it was four years ago, when 1.8 million people flooded the capitol to witness the inauguration of the nation’s first black president at the conclusion of a campaign built on messages of hope, optimism, and generational change. Lass than half as many people were expected to attend the inauguration at a time when the country is also far more divided after a bitter re-election campaign and a more entrenched political gridlock.
Some Republicans were searching for reasons to not be in the city. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney didn’t have plans to attend, making him the first losing candidate not to attend the inauguration since 1989 – when then-Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis stayed in Massachusetts, eating a tuna sandwich, watching on television, and sending a congratulatory telegram to the White House.
However, Representative Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee and chairman of the House Budget Committee, said he planned to attend out of civic obligation.
The star-studded inauguration, which coincided with the national holiday honoring civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also included Beyonce singing the National Anthem, Kelly Clarkson singing “My Country Tis of Thee,” and James Taylor singing “America the Beautiful.”
Obama who officially proclaimed Monday the “National Day of Hope and Resolve, 2013,” was surrounded by members of Congress, family members, and dignitaries such as former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Following the ceremony, Obama will join members of Congress for a three-course lunch that includes steamed lobster with New England chowder; hickory grilled bison with wild huckleberry reduction and red potato horseradish cake. Dessert is apple pie, sour cream ice cream, and aged cheese and honey.
After the luncheon, Obama will lead a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, from the Capitol to the White House. The parade includes three groups from Massachusetts, more than any other one state, including the Boston College marching band, the Boston Crusaders Drum and Bugle Corps, and reenactors of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment.
In the evening, there will be two official inaugural balls, both of them held at a convention center in downtown Washington. On the menu, as it has been at every inauguration since 1981, is a bowl of New England clam chowder from Legal Sea Foods.