WASHINGTON, D.C. — Declaring “our journey is not complete,” President Barack Obama took the oath of office for his second term before a crowd of hundreds of thousands Monday, urging the nation to set an unwavering course toward prosperity and freedom for all its citizens and protect the social safety net that has sheltered the poor, elderly and needy.
“Our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” Obama said in his relatively brief, 18-minute address. “We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class,” he added, echoing his calls from the presidential campaign that catapulted him to re-election.
The president declared that a decade of war is ending, as is the economic recession that consumed much of his first term.
The inaugural fanfare spread across the capital Monday, including a traditional lunch with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Before departing the Capitol, Obama paused in the Rotunda in front of a bust of Martin Luther King Jr., the slain civil rights leader whose birthday holiday coincided with the inaugural festivities.
From the Capitol, the president and first lady Michelle Obama climbed into the black armored limousine that ferried them down crowd-lined Pennsylvania Avenue for the inaugural parade. Thousands cheered them along. Later, the Obamas were to attend glitzy balls expected to draw up to 40,000 people.
Before diving into the afternoon celebrations, Obama previewed an ambitious second-term agenda, devoting several sentences in his address to the threat of global climate change and saying that failure to confront it “would betray our children and future generations.” Obama’s focus on climate change was notable given that he barely dealt with the issue in his first term.
In an era of looming budget cuts, he said the nation has a commitment to costly programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. “These things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us,” he said.
Sandwiched between the bruising presidential campaign and relentless fiscal fights, Monday’s inaugural celebrations marked a brief respite from the partisan gridlock that has consumed the past two years. Perhaps seeking a fresh start, Obama invited several lawmakers to the White House for coffee before his speech, including the Republican leaders with whom he has frequently been at odds.
Among then was the Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. In a statement following Obama’s swearing-in, McConnell said the president’s second term represents “a fresh start when it comes to dealing with the great challenges of our day.”
Looking ahead to those challenges, Obama implored Congress to find common ground over the next four years. And seeking to build on the public support that catapulted him to the White House twice, the president said the public has “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,” Obama said.
Moments earlier, Obama placed his hand on two Bibles — one used by King and the other by Abraham Lincoln — and recited the brief oath of office. Michelle Obama held the Bibles, one on top of the other, as daughters Malia and Sasha looked on.
Vice President Joe Biden was also sworn in for his second term as the nation’s second in command. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, several Cabinet secretaries and dozens of lawmakers were on hand to bear witness to history.
Monday’s oaths were purely ceremonial. The Constitution stipulates that presidents begin their new terms at noon Jan. 20, and in keeping with that requirement, Obama was sworn in Sunday in a small ceremony at the White House. Because inaugural celebrations are historically not held on Sundays, organizers pushed the public events to Monday.
Obama soaked in the history on a day full of traditions as old as the Republic. Gazing over the crowd before retreating into the Capitol, he said, “I want to take a look, one more time. I’m not going to see this again.”
Once the celebrations subside, Obama will be confronted with an array of pressing priorities: an economy still struggling to fully a recover, the fiscal fights with a divided Congress, and new threats of terrorism in North Africa. The president has also pledged to tackle immigration reform and stricter gun laws in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., — sweeping domestic reforms that will require help from reluctant lawmakers.
The president did not offer any specific prescriptions for addressing the challenges ahead, though he is expected to offer more detail in his Feb. 12 State of the Union address.
Asserting “America’s possibilities are limitless,” he declared at the Capitol: “My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it, so long as we seize it together.”
“We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit,” he said. “But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”
Obama’s second inaugural lacked the electric enthusiasm of his first, when 1.8 million people crammed onto the National Mall to witness the swearing-in of the nation’s first black president. Far fewer people attended this year’s inauguration — officials estimated up to 700,000 people — but the crowd still stretched from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. And shortly before the president spoke, U.S. Park Police announced that the public viewing areas on the Mall were full.
Obama never mentioned the words Democrat or Republican, yet his second inaugural address was a decidedly political speech. The president was careful not to make his remarks overtly partisan, but he had a message for Republicans: Compromise and embrace government as part of the solution.
He unexpectedly gave one of his most impassioned calls for climate change — an issue that has not been at the forefront of the political debate.
“The president may have spent more time discussing climate change in this speech than his entire first term in office,” said University of Michigan debate director Aaron Kall. He described the address as “certainly a bolder and riskier speech from a president that doesn’t have to run for re-election again.”
The president promoted his health care reform and stood up for commitments to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security at a time when some Republicans say entitlement programs need to be scaled back to reduce the deficit. “They do not make us a nation of takers,” Obama said. “They free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
This was the language of his re-election campaign and an implicit reminder of Mitt Romney’s ill-timed declaration that Obama’s support came from the 47 percent of American voters “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.”
St. Johns University political scientist Diane Heith said she was surprised how much the campaign influenced Obama’s speech.
“This is a continued effort to contrast with the Republican view that government produces dependency rather than Obama’s view of a community taking care of itself,” Heith said. “And some will likely think it was also a bit of a shot at the Republican — Romney — who put that belief out there so baldly.”