President Barack Obama laid out a sweeping and progressive agenda in his second inaugural speech Monday, calling for “common effort” and “common purpose” among Americans but also making it clear he’d push for an agenda at odds with the Republican lawmakers with whom he’s long fought.
In an 18-minute speech after his ceremonial swearing-in on the west steps of the U.S. Capitol – he was sworn in officially on Sunday – Obama urged action on issues ranging from climate change to immigration to gay marriage.
“We are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together,” he said, speaking to a crowd estimated to be between 500,000 and 700,000.
The nation’s 44th president was sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts using two Bibles – one used by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the other used by Abraham Lincoln. Minutes earlier, Vice President Joe Biden was sworn in by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Obama spoke to a crowd that was enthusiastic, but less than half the size of the crowd of more than 1.8 million that attended his first inauguration. Still, the crowds covered the Mall and formed lengthy queues to get through security barricades, making Obama’s reportedly the largest second-term inauguration in history.
“People seem just as energized as they did in 2008,” said Lauren Khouri, 25, an Avon, Ohio native who was in the crowd and is now attending law school at American University.
Obama repeatedly invoked themes of his campaign – that too few were succeeding while the vast majority were struggling – and also offered a full-throated defense of entitlements, saying “the commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
He acknowledged that America had to reduce the cost of health care and the size of the deficit – which is driven in part by the mammoth cost of entitlements.
“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,” he said, adding that “We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.”
Giving the speech on Martin Luther King Day, Obama, the nation’s first black president, called equality “the star that guides us still… 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 King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
He also became the first president to call for gay rights during an inaugural speech, less than a year after announcing his support for gay marriage.
Obama began his second term without the cloud of crisis that marked his arrival four years ago when the economy was in recession and the nation was fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since then the war in Iraq has ended, U.S. troops are due to be withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2014, and the economy has rebounded — however the national debt is at a historic $16.4 trillion.
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.”
The first few months of Obama’s second term seem destined to feature the same partisan brawls that marked much of his first term. In the next few months alone, he faces three urgent fiscal deadlines to increase the nation’s debt limit and to deal with automatic budget cuts that economists predict could send the economy back into recession.
But on Monday, that divisiveness was tempered somewhat as members of both parties sat side-by-side on the dais, watching Obama sworn in and millions of Americans viewing on television saw glimpses of the political harmony they long have desired.
But that harmony may not last. Columbus-area U.S. Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Twp., who watched the speech on the dais with other members of Congress called the speech “surprisingly partisan.”
“It almost like it was a speech for a Democrat endorsement meeting rather than trying to reach out to Republicans who control the House to try to govern.’’
But Obama, laying out a strong progressive vision, made it clear he had little patience for intransigence.
“Decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay,” he said. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.”
In the crowd, Johnny Hutton, 65, of Toledo, said he had no expectation that Obama’s speech would lead to new unity among both parties.
“I believe the people who fight with him are going to fight with him for the same reasons they’ve been fighting him,” said Hutton, brother of State Sen. Edna Brown, D-Toledo. “But change is coming.”
Joe Hallett, Jack Torry and the Associated Press contributed to this report.